Online Behavioral Profiling & Targeting of Individuals Based on their Political Interests: Privacy Safeguards Are Required for Interactive Marketing

This week an online marketing company called Resonate Networks “announced the first online ad network built for political and public affairs advertising.” According to the company, “Resonate’s ad network is powered by its proprietary Attitudinal Targeting platform that, for the first time, provides public affairs and political advertisers with the ability to identify, persuade, motivate and organize like-minded audiences online and drive them towards an actionable step—whether it is joining a campaign, contributing to a cause, or supporting an initiative.”  Resonate’s platform, they say, was “[D]eveloped by world-class research and online industry experts, Resonate’s Attitudinal Targeting platform incorporates extensive and proprietary algorithms, data modeling and analysis to map Web users’ attitudes and issue positions against their online behavior.  Attitudinal data that advertisers can leverage include…Targeting highly influential individuals with a history of taking action related to an issue of interest…”   “It’s really drilling down to people’s beliefs and where they stand on issues,” Resonate’s CEO told MediaPost.

Resonate told the Washington Post’s Cecilia Kang that the company’s approach doesn’t raise any privacy concerns.  But they are wrong.  How citizens and others are tracked, analyzed, profiled and targeted based on their political views is a privacy (and consumer protection) issue.  Both Congress and the FTC need to look closely at the growing role online profiling and targeting is playing in the political and policy arena.   

Financially backed by well-known political campaigners from both parties,  Resonate also explains that it “has developed one of the most advanced engagement models available, with the ability to not just understand who is influential, but where you can find influentials who care about specific issues.”   Here are excerpts of its pitch to corporate advertisers:

“For the first time, corporate advertisers and agencies have the power to precisely pinpoint and reach web users whose attitudes and issue positions make them most receptive to certain messages and calls-to-action…Micro-Targeting Means Higher-Performance Campaigns: Resonate Networks delivers higher concentrations of your target audiences, translating into greater exposure for your campaign among the right mix of people…Message Segmentation: The success of your campaign may require reaching different audiences with different messages: A supportive audience may receive a direct response offer, while others who are unaware of your products or their benefits may receive an educational message designed to nurture their interest over time. Reduced Budget Waste:  Resonate offers the ability to reach web users that are pre-disposed to your message or product based on their attitudes or beliefs. Conversely, Resonate can help avoid those who hold opposing or conflicting beliefs.”

In addition, Resonate says that it uses “Rich Attitudinal Data:

  • Resonate targets campaigns based on layers of detail on a range of audience attitudes, including:
    • Issues and issue positions
    • Engagement/influencer status
    • Ideology
    • Media consumption
    • Religiosity
    • Partisanship
    • Vote history”

“…distinctions between government services and political campaigning are being blurred as politicians use Internet technology”–National Journal

excerpts:  In general, federal laws bar the use of government assets for political campaigning. But the much-lawyered distinctions between government services and political campaigning are being blurred as politicians use Internet technology to extend their advocacy…White House officials declined to be interviewed on the rules governing the separation of campaign and state data.

“There are indications that the administration wants to revise some of these laws, particularly with respect to the Internet, and we’re waiting to see if we can play a role,” said Peter Greenberger, a former regional campaign manager for Al Gore’s presidential bid who now heads Google’s Elections and Issues Advocacy team. “The real question that people are trying to answer is what can the White House do now that they’re the White House as opposed to a [political] campaign.”

Finding that line will mean answering questions about rules that bar the use of government assets for political campaigning, contracting rules that limit the ability of officials to hire one company rather than another and laws that bar government officials from favoring contractors, said Google officials. Also, added Greenberger, “There would be issues providing some services to an elected official that is not provided to somebody else,” such as a political opponent. But, he added, “in some cases, you know, incumbency is a powerful thing.”

source:  Google Stands To Gain From Capital Connections.  Neil Munro.  National Journal.  March 17, 2009.

Baby Steps for Online Privacy: Why the FTC Self-Regulatory Principles For Online Behavioral Advertising Fails to Protect the Public

Statement of Jeff Chester, Exec. Director, Center for Digital Democracy:

The Federal Trade Commission is supposed to serve as the nation’s leading consumer protection agency.  But for too long it has buried its mandate in the `digital’ sand, as far as ensuring U.S. consumer privacy is protected online.    The commission embraced a narrow intellectual framework as it examined online marketing and data collection for this proceeding.  Since 2001, the Bush FTC has made industry self-regulation for privacy and online marketing the only acceptable approach when considering any policy safeguards (although the Clinton FTC was also inadequate in this regard as well).  Consequently, FTC staff—placed in a sort of intellectual straitjacket—was hampered in their efforts to propose meaningful safeguards.

Advertisers and marketers have developed an array of sophisticated and ever-evolving data collection and profiling applications, honed from the latest developments in such fields as semantics, artificial intelligence, auction theory, social network analysis, data-mining, and statistical modeling.  Unknown to many members of the public, a vast commercial surveillance system is at the core of most search engines, online video channels, videogames, mobile services and social networks.  We are being digitally shadowed across the online medium, our actions monitored and analyzed.

Behavioral targeting (BT), the online marketing technique that analyzes how an individual user acts online so they can be sent more precise marketing messages, is just one tool in the interactive advertisers’ arsenal.  Today, we are witnessing a dramatic growth in the capabilities of marketers to track and assess our activities and communication habits on the Internet.  Social media monitoring, so-called “rich-media” immersive marketing, new forms of viral and virtual advertising and product placement, and a renewed interest (and growing investment in) neuromarketing, all contribute to the panoply of approaches that also includes BT.  Behavioral targeting itself has also grown more complex.  That modest little “cookie” data file on our browsers, which created the potential for behavioral ads, now permits a more diverse set of approaches for delivering targeted advertising.

We don’t believe that the FTC has sufficiently analyzed the current state of interactive marketing and data collection.  Otherwise, it would have been able to articulate a better definition of behavioral targeting that would illustrate why legislative safeguards are now required.  It should have not exempted “First Party” sites from the Principles; users need to know and approve what kinds of data collection for targeting are being done at that specific online location.

The commission should have created specific policies for so-called sensitive data, especially in the financial, health, and children/adolescent area.  By urging a conversation between industry and consumer groups to “develop more specific standards,” the commission has effectively and needlessly delayed the enactment of meaningful safeguards.

On the positive side, the FTC has finally recognized that given today’s contemporary marketing practices, the distinction between so-called personally identifiable information (PII) and non-PII is no longer relevant.  The commission is finally catching up with the work of the Article 29 Working Party in the EU (the organization of privacy commissioners from member states), which has made significant advances in this area.

We acknowledge that many on the FTC staff worked diligently to develop these principles.  We personally thank them for their commitment to the public interest.  Both Commissioners Leibowitz and Harbour played especially critical roles by supporting a serious examination of these issues.  We urge everyone to review their separate statements issued today.  Today’s release of the privacy principles continues the conversation.  But meaningful action is required.  We cannot leave the American public—now pressed by all manner of financial and other pressures—to remain vulnerable to the data collection and targeting lures of interactive marketing.

Google’s “Policy Fellowships”–Self-Serving Efforts to Help Ward Off Privacy and Online Marketing Protections?

Google has selected 15 organizations for its 2009 “Google Policy Fellowship.” Fellows are funded by Google and will work on “Internet and technology policy” issues over the summer. Take a look at some of the groups it selected and what they say the projects will be (and their positions on Internet issues). And then ask–is Google working to help undermine the public interest in communications policy? Think online privacy and interactive marketing as you read these following excerpts from a number of these groups:

“The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public interest organization dedicated to advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government. We believe that individuals are best helped not by government intervention, but by making their own choices in a free marketplace…Electronic privacy: CEI seeks to reframe the online privacy debate in terms of the potential benefits to consumers of greater information sharing, transparency, and marketing. Fellows will explore competing privacy policies and how they are evolving as the public grows more aware of privacy risks. This research will also encompass privacy-enhancing technologies that empower consumers to safeguard personal data on an individualized basis.”

“The Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF) is a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy… Online Advertising & Privacy Policy Issues: PFF defends online advertising as the lifeblood of online content and services, particularly for the “long tail,” and emphasizes a layered approach to privacy protection, including technological self-help, user education, industry self-regulation, and enforcement of existing laws, as a less restrictive—and generally more effective—alternative to increased regulation.”

“The Technology Policy Institute is a think tank that focuses on the economics of innovation, technological change, and related regulation in the United States and around the world… Privacy and data security: benefits and costs to consumers of online information flows, and the effects of alternative privacy policies on consumers and the development of the Internet.”

“The Cato Institute’s research on telecommunications and information policy advances the Institute’s vision of free minds and free markets within the information policy, information technology, and telecommunications sectors of the American economy…Information Policy: Examining how increased data sensing, storage, transfer, processing, and use affect human values like privacy, fairness and Due Process, personal security, and seclusion. Articulating complex technological, social, and legal issues in ordinary language. Promoting the policies that protect these human values consistent with a free society and maximal human liberty.”

Google is also funding fellowships at other groups, including the partially Google funded Center for Democracy and Technology. The CDT connected Internet Education Foundation (which helps run the Congressional Internet Caucus, where Google is a corporate Advisory member) also will house a Google Fellow. There are a few public interest groups hosting Fellows that have an independent track record, including Media Access Project, EFF, and Public Knowledge. But awarding Fellowships to groups which will help it fight off responsible privacy and online marketing safeguards provides another insight into Google’s own political agenda.

Why Google Can’t Say a Word that Starts With “P”—Privacy

The senior execs and DC lobbying team at Google really have a major problem addressing one of the company’s gravest problems–its lack of leadership protecting consumer/citizen privacy. While Google claims to reporters and others it’s been proactively strengthening its privacy policies, most of the changes have come as a result of pressure from policymakers and privacy advocates.

This week, Google released a booklet which “spelled out…2009 policy priorities” for the new Administration and Congress, including several Internet related issues. The booklet’s release coincided with a speech Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. Missing from the booklet’s agenda was any discussion of privacy or the role and structure of online advertising (You would never know, for example, that Google was just forced by the Department of Justice’s antitrust division to drop its proposed deal with leading rival Yahoo!).

Google should be playing a leadership role supporting the enactment of serious privacy rights for the public–including “opt-in,” real transparency, user control, limits on retention, etc. If Google believes its golden digital goose will be baked once consumers better understand and control how they are being profiled and targeted, they should examine how it defines corporate social responsibility. But Google’s current approach—we can’t admit we are collecting your data for interactive marketing and cannot even say the word privacy in public-– will ultimately have consequences for Google’s future–including its share price.

Google Receives Lion’s Share of Obama Online Ad Campaign Spend

The enterprising Kate Kaye from Clickz posted an article on Sen. Obama’s online ad spending. The latest stats, she notes, is nearly $5.5 million, with $3.3 spent on Google. In a telling commentary on the state of search marketing competition, Mr. Obama’s campaign spent only $700,000 on Yahoo and a slightly less than $250k for Microsoft/MSN. See Ms. Kaye’s piece for more details.

Network Advertising Initiative Continues to Protect Online Marketers Interests Instead of Consumer Privacy

The Network Advertising Initiative’s (NAI) real role is to protect the ability of its members (Google, Yahoo!, AOL, etc.) to collect huge amounts of profiling and targeting data from each of us. NAI claims it’s promoting self-regulation on data privacy through its principles and guidelines. But NAI has long been a toothless group, and is basically a public relations vehicle helping to cover the data crime and more-than-misdemeanors of the industry.

So it’s not surprising that last week, the NAI announced that while it supported an “opt-in” for the kind of behavioral targeting planned by the phone and cable companies, it didn’t believe such a safeguard was required for its data-collected membership. In a statement, NAI Executive Director Trevor Hughes said that his group “believes that opt-out continues to be an appropriate choice mechanism for traditional web-based behavioral advertising and this is part of our sliding scale framework.” That’s the political position taken, of course, by his members. They are the biggest behavioral targeters on the planet.

The NAI is a weak group which reflects the cynical view of the online ad industry.  NAI members hope that they can fool policymakers into believing consumer privacy can be safeguarded by the data wolves running the privacy hen house. The battle lines for the next Congress, the FTC and FCC are being drawn. Opt-out is a feckless approach to digital ad privacy. Responsible companies should be in the lead calling for meaningful opt-in. Note to NAI members:  Deregulation and industry self-governance–how shall I put it–doesn’t seem to have worked that well so far!

Interactive Ad Bureau to Congress and Public: If Your Privacy is Protected, The Internet Will Fail Like Wall Street!

It’s too disquieting a time in the U.S. to dismiss what a lobbyist for the Interactive Advertising Bureau said as merely silly. The IAB lobbyist is quoted in today’s Washington Post saying: “If Congress required ‘opt in’ today, Congress would be back in tomorrow writing an Internet bailout bill. Every advertising platform and business model would be put at risk.” [reg. required]

Why is the IAB afraid of honest consumer disclosure and consumer control? If online ad leaders can’t imagine a world where the industry still makes lots of money–while simultaneously respecting consumer privacy–perhaps they should choose another profession (say investment banking!).

Seriously, online ad leaders need to acknowledge that reasonable federal rules are required that safeguard consumers (with meaningful policies especially protecting children and adolescents, as well as adult financial, health, and political data). The industry doesn’t need a bail-out. But its leaders should `opt-in’ to a responsible position for online consumer privacy protection.

Behavioral Targeters Use Our Online Data to Track Our Actions and, They Say, to “Automate Serendipity.” Attention: FTC, Congress, EU, State AG’s, and Everyone Else Who Cares About Consumer Welfare (let alone issues related to public health and ethics!)

NPR’s On the Media co-host and Ad Age columnist Bob Garfield provides policymakers and advocates with an arsenal of new material that support the passage of digital age consumer protection laws. In his Ad Age essay [“Your Data With Destiny.” sub required], Garfield has this incredibly revealing–and disturbing–quote from behavioral targeting industry leader Dave Morgan (Tacoda) [our emphasis]:

“Now we have the ability to automate serendipity,” says Dave Morgan, founder of Tacoda, the behavioral-marketing firm sold to AOL in 2007 for a reported $275 million. “Consumers may know things they think they want, but they don’t know for sure what they might want.”

Garfield writes that “In 2006 Tacoda did a project for Panasonic in which it scrutinized the online behavior of millions of internet users — not a sample of 1,200 subjects to project a result against the whole population within a statistical margin of error; this was actual millions. Then it broke down that population’s surfing behavior according to 400-some criteria: media choices, last site visited, search terms, etc. It then ranked all of those behaviors according to correlation with flat-screen-TV purchase…“We no longer have to rely on old cultural prophecies as to who is the right consumer for the right message,” Morgan says. “It no longer has to be microsample-based [à la Nielsen or Simmons]. We now have [total-population] data, and that changes everything. With [those] data, you can know essentially everything. You can find out all the things that are nonintuitive or counterintuitive that are excellent predictors. … There’s a lot of power in that.”

There’s more in the piece, including what eBay is doing. As the annual Advertising Week fest begins in New York, we hope the leaders of the ad industry will take time to reflect on what they are creating. You cannot have a largely invisible system which tracks and analyzes our online and interactive behaviors and relationships, and then engages in all manner of stealth efforts to get individuals (including adolescents and kids) to act, think or feel in some desired way. Such a system requires rules which make the transaction entirely transparent and controlled by the individual. The ad industry must show some responsibility here.

Time for National Policy Providing Basic & Free Broadband for All: Metering and Ad-Supported Access Not the Answer

As Time Warner and the other broadband monopolists craft schemes to begin imposing pricing plans for broadband which limit and meter our online use, it’s time to push for a meaningful public interest “universal service” digital age policy. A 21st Century democracy should provide a reasonable amount of free access to every citizen in their home (along with more plentiful free access in schools, libraries, and community sites). Today’s New York Times has an non-analytical article on the Time Warner broadband metering trial [“Putting a Meter on the Computer for Internet Use.” Reg may be required].

Under Michael Powell’s FCC, the Bush Administration gave a broadband monopoly to the phone and cable giants–ending the hope for any serious competition. By rewarding the old monopolists (cable TV & phone) with a new digital domain to lord over, the Powell FCC ensured that consumers and citizens would eventually have to confront threats to both affordable service and content diversity online [that’s the network neutrality part of the story]. The plan by Google and others to free up extra spectrum isn’t a complete answer either. More bandwidth governed by an advertising-centric business model will foreground some kinds of content over others–leaving, we believe, digital content that illuminates democratic expression a hostage to commercial forces.

That’s why everyone must be guaranteed some form of free basic bandwidth so they can access news, information, and even entertainment without fear of running afoul of a cut-off (or huge bill) by their local cable or phone ISP. What that free access amount should be needs to be debated; but it should be generous enough so individuals can consume mighty multi-media amounts of educational, civic, and political content.

It will be a true test for the groups working on communications policies–as well as the leaders of our major political parties–to see if they have the vision and courage to call for what is right. If they merely confine themselves to be a part of the safe and narrow dimensions of what are the usual U.S. media policy debates, they will fail to address one of the critical public interest issues of our time.