FTC’s Behavioral Ad Principles–the last act of the Bush Administration? Why is the Obama White House Allowing the FTC To Remain Under the Leadership Appointed by Pres. Bush?

In a few hours, approximately between 10-11 am eastern, the FTC is expected to release its final “Online Behavioral Advertising Principles.” Originally released for comment in December 2007, the principles are a sort of Valentine’s Day present to the online ad industry from the (supposedly departed) Bush Administration.  From what we know, the FTC principles support self-regulation.  Online marketers will be told they should behave better–and here are suggestions.  It’s like a teacher telling a misbehaving student–‘behave better, dear,’ or else we will have to tell your parent (in this case, the guardian being potential congressional action).

My CDD urged Commissioners Harbour and Leibowitz to issue separate statements on the principles, and call for tougher requirements—especially in the area of so-called sensitive information.  This would include data connected to our financial and health related online activities (think mortgage and loan applications or queries for prescription drugs).  CDD and a coalition of groups also formally asked the commission to impose serious privacy safeguards for both children and adolescents.

But these principles were crafted within the narrow confines of the Bush Administration philosophy prevailing at the FTC.  Only self-regulation is permitted.  Consequently, such an approach likely means these rules leave the online data collection, profiling and targeted marketing system which comprise behavioral marketing off the privacy protection hook.

But one question looms at the moment.  Why has the new Obama administration allowed the FTC to remain under the leadership of Bush-appointee William E. Kovacic? The principles being issued today, in fact, reflect the “old” FTC, not one run under the philosophy of President Obama.  Why is the Obama White House failing to ensure a change of leadership at the FTC?  The agency is responsible for overseeing a huge portion of the economy, including critical financial issues.  It’s also supposed to be the leading agency on consumer protection issues.   The Obama White House should have–by now-found someone who would led the FTC, so it can better protect the public.

The principles being released today were only made possible because of the Bush FTC give-away to Google, when it approved its takeover of online ad giant DoubleClick.  CDD, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and USPIRG fought the merger, including on privacy grounds.  FTC Commissioner Pamela Harbour played a key role forcing the agency (then run by Chairwoman Majoris, whose husband’s law firm represented DoubleClick) to address the privacy concerns. As a consequence of the political pressure from its failure to seriously examine the consumer privacy issues of the Google deal, the FTC staff were told to develop these principles.

The next chair of the FTC needs to take privacy and online consumer protection issues seriously.  The agency does need more resources, but also a new spirit.  If the FTC had been on the job, and was examining how lending institutions were recklessly promoting loans and mortgages, maybe today’s mess wouldn’t be as tragic as it is.  More to come after the commission releases the principles.

Annals of Behavioral Targeting: New product designed to “to prompt a profitable response for every user”

Perfect timing for International Privacy Day.  A new behavioral targeting product that will soon be released.  Here’s an excerpt from the press release:  “TARGUSinfo, the leading provider of On-Demand Insight(SM) about prospects and customers, plans to unveil AdAdvisor(SM) services…a new predictive-targeting solution leveraging the industry’s largest repository of verified offline lifestyle and demographic information. “The power of AdAdvisor is that it enables ad networks, publishers and advertisers to serve the ad most likely to prompt a profitable response for every user based on the most predictive offline consumer information,”…When an ad network sees a user on its’ publisher network, AdAdvisor cookies relay precisely which segment they fall within and enables ad networks and publishers to serve the most relevant advertisement — from the moment they first encounter users.”…Extensive Coverage – More than 50 million unique cookies, each embedded with highly predictive data attributes.”

and from Targusinfo’s site:  “Each AdAdvisor cookie contains verified, household-level demographics, interests and purchase behaviors. Our cookies are then deployed to score Internet users according to their unique segment — enabling you to serve the ad most likely to trigger a response…

“We deliver unprecedented predictive power. Our cookie-based services deliver rich, offline consumer information to boost existing behavioral-targeting methods.”

The company’s privacy policy states that “AdAdvisor services place a cookie containing non-personally identifiable information on a user’s computer…AdAdvisor cookies enable Web sites using the Services to recognize users when they return to those Web sites…The cookies used by the Services do not contain any personally identifiable information. Instead, the cookie contains anonymous, non-personally identifiable categories of information which are derived as a result of a user’s registration through one of our registration partners.”

It’s not personally identifiable but, in their own words, “recognize users” when they return to sites!  It’s anonymous, but includes user “registration” data via third parties! This is another example of why the FTC and the Congress has to reform privacy safeguards.  The antiquated concept of what is considered personally identifiable has to brought into the 21st Century and the Obama Administration era.

Ad Industry Lawyer Spins in Ad Age that Privacy Will Be on “Back Burner.” Not Only Incorrect–but self-serving

This week’s Advertising Age has a “Legal Issues to Watch in 2009” column.  Written by Douglas J. Wood of Reed Smith, it claims that: “PRIVACY TO THE BACK BURNER- Congress and regulators are in a Catch-22: While under constant pressure from constituents and consumerists to curtail the use of personal information or behavioral targeting, they recognize that advertising is the backbone of the internet. So while there will be occasional skirmishes, the war on privacy will continue in its stalemate. Regulators will also see browser makers offering more control to consumers to block ads and the collection of personal information as adequate progress.”

Mr. Wood, it turns out is “a member of Reed Smith’s Executive Committee and the firm’s Advertising Technology & Media Group…and is General Counsel to both the Association of National Advertisers and the Advertising Research Foundation.

Perhaps Mr. Wood is too busy to really follow Hill and FTC developments, because he is wrong.  There will be considerable activity on the Hill and elsewhere.   His column should have been labeled as written by the lawyer for the ad industry lobby group.  But it does reflect a lack of insight about the online ad industry’s problems related to privacy and consumer protection.

Vint Cerf, “Chief Internet Evangelist,” Touts Google’s Brand Building Potential

Everyone, it appears, is expected to help Google sell its advertising and brand-building services to new clients. Even when they have the title as a “father” of the Internet. See this video interview of Vint Cerf from a May 2008 event in Singapore. It illuminates a number of Google’s advertising and marketing strategies, including using the power of social media to “virally” promote brands. Here’s a transcript:

“Ogilvy Insights: How can brands tap into the social media phenomenon? An Ogilvy interview with Vinton G. Cerf, Google’s VP & Chief Internet Evangelist. Thursday 22 May, 2008 – Singapore.

Vinton G. Cerf: “Ok, so here’s an interesting phenomenon: We know that you don’t read every book that’s published, you don’t see every movie that’s produced, you don’t watch every television program and every radio program. Something is helping you decide what to look at, what to read.

Part of that something, we’ll call advertising information. And I want to make sure that we recognize that this is information. We call it advertising when we’re not interested in it. When we’re interested in it, it’s information. What Google wants to do is to make sure that the information that you get, that comes from advertising sources, is interesting to you, not disinteresting.

And so let’s think now as a brand; the brand thinker says “well, I need to get in front of as many people as possible so they are aware of my existence and why my products and services should be attractive to them. But the way people filter their interests is to listen to what other people have to say – their friends, their families, their teachers and so on. So we need to take advantage of that filtering mechanism. One way to do that is to make sure that those people whose opinion you listen to, that tell you what movies to watch, what books to read or what products to buy, know about my brand. Now, how to I go about doing that? Well one way is to do the traditional way of somehow plastering your logo up everywhere you possibly can, but that’s a shock dam… (not sure what he says here)

The more interesting this to do is to get your brand in front of someone who has some authority and interest in the products and services associated with that brand, so that person now becomes an anchor and whose opinion now counts in his or her circle of friends. So we now need to identify which people are the opinion makers in these various social groupings.

How can we do that? Well, Google in a way has a tool which helps us do that. Because the way we present advertising information is to put it up only if we think it is really of interest to that party. And in fact the thing that makes our advertising mechanism so valuable is that we are pretty good at getting an ad that someone will click on in front of that person. Their interest level is indicated by the fact that they clicked on the ad. I’m not gonna click on an ad I’m not interested in, that’s advertising. If I click on it, it’s information. So we have a built in filter to find the people who are interested in this particular brand or in the products associated with it.

So now what we need to do is to help the person who clicked on that ad, become an opinion maker. And one way to do that is to say; “Well, that if that person is part of a social network, then the fact that they clicked on the ad gives me an opportunity to give them a tool for making their interest in my brand known to their friends”. So when you look at OpenSocial, you discover mechanisms in there that allow people to tell their friends or draw attention to their friends to things that they have seen that they think their friends would be interested in. So the more that we can facilitate that communication, the more powerful this particular method of spreading knowledge of brands is gonna be.”

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.

New AT&T-funded “Future of Privacy” Group: Will it Support Real Privacy Protection or Serve as a Surrogate for Self-regulation and Data Collection?

A new group co-directed by former DoubleClick and AOL chief privacy officer Jules Polonetsky, called the “Future of Privacy Forum,” has been announced. It is connected to the law firm representing AT&T–Proskauer Rose–which has a considerable practice in the online marketing and data collection area. Other backers include Intel, General Electric, IBM and Wal-Mart.

We are concerned, however, that the role of the Forum is to help discourage Congress from enacting an opt-in regime for data collection. Both ISPs–such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner–as well as online advertising companies such as Google/DoubleClick, Yahoo, and Microsoft must be governed by privacy laws which empower and protect consumers. The role of ISPs in any data collection for targeted online marketing, in particular, requires serious analysis and stringent safeguards. AT&T, Google, Microsoft, Comcast, the online ad networks, and social media marketers (to name a few) must be required to provide meaningful disclosure, transparency, accountability and user control (with special rules governing health, financial and data involving children and youth). Self-regulation has failed. If the Future of Privacy group is to have any legitimacy, it will work to support serious federal rules. But if it trots out some sort of voluntary code of conduct as a way to undermine the growing call for real privacy safeguards, this new group may soon be viewed as beholden to its funders and backers.

Embedding Brands in Videogames

The growth of in-game marketing should be on the public policy radar. It’s something we have been following with food and beverage marketing targeting children and adolescents. Read this excerpt from a Double Fusion ad for a regional sales manager. Then ask yourself: does this business model raise consumer protection and public welfare concerns.

excerpt: “Want to place brands in games? Double Fusion’s Core Games Group is looking for a passionate gamer with the desire to sell marketers on the sexy allure of the gaming console as a means to reach the increasingly allusive 18-34 Male demographic. The Regional Sales Manager, Core Games Group will be responsible for using Double Fusion’s multi-platform approach (static in-game advertising, dynamic in-game advertising, gaming tournaments, downloadable content, co-marketing partnerships, etc) to in-game advertising to meet marketers’ campaign objectives in the most engaging ways imaginable.

…Double Fusion connects brands with audiences through the immersive medium of games…our integrated marketing solutions continue to inspire Fortune 500 companies to get in the game with groundbreaking advertising campaigns…Chance to make media history in a “rising star” category – interactive entertainment is one of the fastest growing categories across female audiences and advertisers are just beginning to realize this huge market potential…Our unique media capabilities across 2D and 3D games allow advertisers to benefit from a level of interaction that’s simply not possible with traditional advertising. In fact, research from Nielsen has shown the superior recall and purchase preference results that 3D programs deliver. The best of both worlds – we’re well-funded with financial backing from top-tier venture capital firms plus media giants such as Time Warner and Hearst…”