Games Microsoft Plays: “consumer online behavior” tracked on its video gaming service [a “massive” invasion of privacy!]

Microsoft’s just announced a new consumer tracking and profiling tool for advertisers using its Massive video gaming platform service. Calling it a “breakthrough” in its press release, the new Microsoft/comScore research tool enables advertisers:

“… to see the direct impact that in-game advertisements have on consumer online behavior…, advertisers will get an inside look at the degree to which in-game ads motivate gamers to visit Web sites, conduct brand-related search queries and engage in other online actions, something that previously had gone unmeasured…Through this collaboration with comScore, we will also now be able to measure those consumer actions that result from in-game ads. We think this has the potential to literally ‘change the game’ for both advertisers and publishers who want to improve the effectiveness of their in-game ad efforts.”

AdEffx Action Lift for Gaming matches in-game console ad serving data from Massive with comScore’s third-party, post-campaign panel data to track and measure in-game advertising effectiveness. By combining Microsoft’s proprietary, non-personally identifying Anonymous ID data, which is common across Xbox LIVE and Microsoft Web properties (known as Windows Live ID), with user data from comScore’s panel of 2 million Internet users worldwide, comScore can determine if panelists who saw in-game advertising subsequently visited a brand’s Web site, searched brand-related terms or engaged in other online behaviors important to advertisers.”

“Cookie Wars, Real-Time Targeting, and Proprietary Self Learning Algorithms: Why the FTC Must Act Swiftly to Protect Consumer Privacy”

That’s the title of comments filed at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission by my Center for Digital Democracy and U.S. PIRG.  I also just gave a presentation with the same name at last week’s meeting of data protection commissioners in Madrid, Spain.   It’s available here.

Here’s an excerpt:   Today, consumers online face the rapid growth and ever-increasing sophistication of the various techniques advertisers employ for data collection, profiling, and targeting across all online platforms. The growth of ad and other optimization services for targeting, involving real-time bidding on ad exchanges; the expansion of data collection capabilities from the largest advertising agencies (with the participation of leading digital media content and marketing companies); the increasing capabilities of mobile marketers to target users via enhanced data collection; and a disturbing growth of social media surveillance practices for targeted marketing are just a few of the developments the commission must address. But despite technical innovation and what may appear to be dramatic changes in the online data collection/profiling/targeting market, the commission must recognize that the underlying paradigm threatening consumer privacy online has been constant since the early 1990’s. So-called “one-to-one marketing,” where advertisers collect as much as possible on individual consumers so they can be targeted online, remains the fundamental approach.

Facebook: “selling fans between $4 and $10” to Brands and others

The Facebook economy—built on allowing marketers to harness what’s called the “social graph”–is big business (and will grow as consumers also buy more virtual goods).  AllFacebook reports that:

“When the Facebook platform launched two and a half years ago a massive cost per install economy sprouted up. Whether it was individual developers looking for more users or large brands looking to expand the user base of their branded applications, money was flowing…There are entire ad networks still supported by the cost per install economy…So how much do fans sell for? There’s a wide range but I’ve heard Facebook is selling fans between $4 and $10. That adds up to substantial revenue for Facebook. For example, let’s assume that the top 100 advertisers each want to purchase 100,000 fans. Theoretically Facebook could generate $100 million just from the top 100 advertisers. As you move down the long tail the numbers begin to add up quickly.”

source:  If Brands Want Fans, Facebook Will Sell Them Fans.  Nick O’Neill.  AllFacebook.  Oct. 20, 2009.

Online Ad Networks Targeting Teens: Time for new privacy safeguards

Teens are a major focus of online advertising.  We have asked Congress and the FTC to develop safeguards to ensure adolescents have their privacy protected.  As part of the public debate, it’s useful to review how online ad networks target teen users.  Here are some examples:

Betawave (its 12-17 targeting service):  “If it feels like it’s impossible to capture the attention of today’s short-attention-span teenager, we’d beg to differ. On average, teenagers spent 15 mins per session on our publisher sites and 73.7 mins per month. More importantly, their mindstate is highly receptive to advertising with stats 118% higher than industry average and 158% more likely to agree that advertisements influence their purchase decisions…What’s our secret? Our selection of casual games, virtual worlds, and social play sites that are in touch with their Teen and Tween audiences. We know how to create content to hold the attention of the American Teenager, but to also keep them coming back for more…Our Teen and Tween audience consumes all types of different media, but is addicted to the Internet. The content of our sites appeal to the “Influencers” — the kids who assert their preferences with parents and peers and impact the behavior of others…“Virtual World Integration:  Imagine a marketing vehicle where users embrace sponsorship, where they constantly ask for more brands, and where advertising is seen as a validation of their community. Virtual worlds offer this experience to savvy marketers…Integrate your product into virtual worlds, and turn casual observers into brand champions.”

Kiwibox teen network [Burst Network]:  Kiwibox Teen Network, brought to you by Burst Network, is the premier online vehicle for advertisers looking to target the teenage audience of girls and guys that are currently in high school or college. The anchor site for the network,, is a popular social networking destination and online magazine for teens…

As a member of Kiwibox Teen Network, your site will get the attention of popular brand marketers and attract high CPM campaigns. Advertisers on Kiwibox Teen Network will include the best brand names in consumer electronics, telecom, entertainment, apparel/footwear, snacks and beverages, retail, beauty products, and fast food…Kiwibox Teen Network supports several types of Rich Media layer ad units, including Interstitials, Superstitials, Floating, Synchronized and In-Person Rovion ads. We have partnerships with the top Rich Media vendors like PointRoll, Eyewonder, EyeBlaster, Unicast, Interpoll, and Atlas…

Protecting Privacy Online from so-called `Smart’ Ads that “Gleans Information about the Consumer”

As we have explained to policymakers, they also must address how online marketing applications threaten consumer privacy.   The rise of so-called smart ads that learn about your interests and behaviors, and then makes you special offers, involves the use of sophisticated digital techniques such as rich media. As this week’s Performance Insider on “Add Direct Response to Get More out of Rich-Media Ads” explains:

Ad delivery technologies further enhance direct response success by leveraging dynamic ad generation to produce a custom rich media ad that is optimized based on specific levers — products or creative elements of interest to the consumer combined with behavioral, demographic, geo and other targeting. By creating an on-the-fly, ultra-relevant ad with in-banner key response activities, marketers will drive greater interaction, response and conversion.

Rich media and online marketing company Pointroll (owned by Gannett) explains how the use of its “tailgating” technologies expand the capability of interactive multimedia ads:

Rich media ads are attention-grabbing, powerful, and engaging. They can encourage consumers to buy products and direct them to the advertiser’s retail stores or website via click-through to make the purchase. But until now, they were not a true end-to-end solution. Now, through a partnership with tailgate, pointroll offers secure ecommerce capabilities directly within rich media ad units. With pointroll ads powered by tailgate technology, consumers can purchase goods and services directly within the ad unit, without ever leaving the site they’re browsing. Tailgate can enable any credit card-based ecommerce transaction. Possible applications include purchasing movie tickets, music, ring tones and retail goods; and making political or charitable donations…Advanced analytics – integrated reporting, analysis & research tools provide an in-depth look at campaign performance and visibility into consumer behavior and purchase patterns.

Pointroll’s Ad Control product adds this dimension:  Create, deliver and measure unlimited creative and messaging combinations with dynamic ads that influence the right consumer at the right time with PointRoll’s AdControl.  Create: AdControl enables advertisers and their agencies to easily produce infinite ad combinations by mixing and matching various creative elements and dynamically generating a unique ad in real time. Connect: AdControl seamlessly leverages each possible creative combination and marries it with information known about the user to deliver the most relevant, customized ad experience based on characteristics such as geo, site, placement, or custom defined variables…AdControl gleans information about the consumer and turns this knowledge into a customized ad; ensuring the most relevant creative is served to each user…By mapping user characteristics to creative elements, AdControl can produce the right ad for the right consumer.

Microsoft’s “Sweeping Vision” for Online Ads: “unlocking the Holy Grail of marketing” by “mining user intent”

The digital data collection arms race is unleashing powerful forces focused on data collection and consumer targeting across much of the online world.  As advertisers meet to discuss and celebrate their accomplishment and plans, as part of Advertising Week, Microsoft is playing a leading role.  As you read about their plans from this excerpt in Adweek, keep in mind that they hope to bundle their search marketing platform with Yahoo!

Microsoft is heading into Advertising Week looking to capture the ad industry’s attention by laying out a sweeping vision for the online advertising market and the integral part it plans to play in its the future…At the heart of that undertaking is the plan to build a product that can determine exactly what ads Web users want to see and when. “At the core, the most important thing to us is mining user intent,” Howe [Scott Howe, corporate vp, Microsoft’s advertiser and publisher solutions group], said. “What does a user really want to see in the way of advertising.”

That’s easy in search. But intent is not so clear on content sites or social networks. “If Bing is step one [for Microsoft Advertising], step two is extending that engine to power the ads that someone sees across all display ad formats and multiple devices,” Howe said.

…”When people talk about behavioral targeting, often they’re talking about flat display formats on a PC — and we’re talking about across all digital devices,” he said. “And so, by having this engine power all the different things holistically, we’re actually in some respects unlocking the Holy Grail of marketing.”

Technology Policy Institute Spins the Privacy Debate in D.C.–Group funded by Some of the Biggest Data Collection Companies

Today, the Technology Policy Institute (TPI) is holding a Hill forum on privacy and the Internet.  The group’s announcement for the event states that More privacy, however, would mean less information, less valuable advertising, and thus fewer resources available for producing new low-priced services.  It is this tradeoff that Congress needs to take into account as it considers new privacy legislation.”

What an absurd, reductionistic, and intellectually-dishonest claim.  First, this group is funded by some of the largest companies engaged in behavioral data collection and also fighting meaningful privacy policies.   That includes Google and Time Warner.  TPI’s other funders involved in some form of data collection and targeted interactive marketing include AT&T, Cisco, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and Verizon.  Rep. Cliff Stearns, the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on the Communications, Technology, and the Internet is speaking at the event: that committee is currently drafting privacy legislation to protect consumers.  Panel speakers include TPI supporters Google and Comcast.  The lone privacy group on the panel, CDT, is funded by Google and others.  One academic on the panel also works for a high-tech consulting company.  The other panel academic has done fine work on social networks and privacy.

What makes TPI’s posturing absurd, beyond its funding conflicts, is the current economic crisis.  Consumer privacy laws are required to ensure that our financial, health and other personal transactions online are conducted in a responsible manner.  Anyone–or group–who believes that we can’t have both privacy and a robust online marketplace is out of touch.

IAB Works to Undermine Obama Consumer Protection Plan [On its Exec. Board includes Google, Time Warner, Disney, NYT, CBS, WPP]

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) signed a July 20, 2009 letter sent to Rep. Barney Frank of the House Committee on Financial Services raising questions–and really attempting to undermine–the Obama Administration’s proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  Others signing the letter included the Business Roundtable, Consumers Bankers Association, Consumer Data Industry Association, Financial Services Roundtable, the Real Estate Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The IAB wasn’t the only ad lobby group signing the letter; so did the 4A’s and the DMA.  My colleagues in the consumer community view the letter as an attempt to derail the bill [the letter, which asks for a delay on the bill, says that “there will be significant dangerous, unintended consequences if the legislation is enacted in its current form.”]

Why would the IAB be concerned about the creation of a new powerful consumer financial watchdog?  It’s because their members work with companies engaged in digitally-related financial products–including mortgages, loans, credit cards, and so-called lead generation services.  The IAB benefits from the hundreds of millions spent year year on interactive ads for financially-related services (Among the top 15 digital advertisers in 2008 were Scottrade,, TD Ameritrade Holding Co, Bank of America, FMR Corp, Experian, etc.). The IAB is clearly afraid of having an agency that would be empowered to investigate how online marketers sell and promote a wide range of financial products online.

We do wonder whether IAB board members that support the Obama Administration’s proposal (which is widely backed by consumer groups) understand the implications of the position it has taken.  Personally, I believe the creation of the new agency is critically important.  We must ensure that American consumers are never again victims when buying financial products.  Given that most of us will be learning about and purchasing financial services online, the proposed new agency will have to address how a number of IAB’s members engage in digitally-delivered financial services.

A Microsoft/Yahoo! Deal will Raise Privacy and Competition Issues [Annals of Behavioral Targeting Mergers]

Microsoft and Yahoo!  should expect privacy and consumer groups to vigorously press regulators to closely and skeptically examine any deal–and at the very least urge them to impose a series of tough conditions on data collection and ad practices.  This digital duo will not get a free data collection pass from privacy and consumer groups, even if a new combination would provide much needed competition to Google.  Microsoft and Yahoo have created elaborate data collection services across platforms and applications, including for behavioral targeting.  They have competing ad targeting businesses in search, display and mobile, for example.  Both companies operate leading ad exchanges (where our profile data is bought and sold like food commodities). They also have competing ad targeting research and development efforts. Beyond the US, there are important competition and privacy issues for the EU as well.

A merger that further concentrates control by a dwindling very few over the digital marketing and advertising business illustrates how quickly consolidation has emerged as a principal and worrisome feature of the Internet era.

Digital Surveillance & Privacy: Behavioral Tracking on Social Networks and in Virtual Worlds

Social media monitoring–where social networks and social marketers track what users post and who they communicate to–is part of today’s behavioral targeting landscape.  Such eavesdropping is also occurring within virtual spaces, as well.  Here’s an excerpt from Behavioral Insider [17 July 2009].  When you read it, consider that the online marketing lobby is working to prevent lawmakers from protecting your privacy:

Cracking the social media monetization code has become one of the main obsessions of behavioral targeting in the past year. The data produced by social networks is just too juicy, too intimate, too valuable for any self-respecting data miner to resist…The great promise of social media for advertisers is that it represents such a rich font of relatively uninhibited exchanges among people, troves of intentionality, a mosh pit of sentiment and real records of what people do. We are only scratching the surface of ways to leverage this new kind of virtual conversations…We are only beginning to see how this sort of online behavior can be leveraged and used both in world and outside of the virtual space. “Think of it as a transactional graph as opposed to a social graph,” says [CEO of TwoFish Lisa] Rutherford. “Take a real-world analog. I am a female in her thirties, married and living in Palo Alto. You know I go to the gym, to local restaurants. I shop. I go to work. That is all fine. And that is equivalent to online behavioral targeting. But wouldn’t you really like to know that I only buy organic fruits, that when I go to the gym I take yoga and pay this much for the class? And when I go to a restaurant I often order chicken. That gives you interesting information in the real world that might make you send me a health magazine as opposed to Us weekly. We can do all of that in a game.”

source:  Virtually Real Behaviors.  Steve Smith.  Behavioral Insider.  17 July 2009.