AOL’s Privacy “Penguins”–Time Warner Skating on [Very] Thin Consumer Protection Ice

The senior management over at Time Warner must be `in treatment’ with some of their Looney Toon characters. How else to explain the ludicrous use of cartoon penguins that will soon be deployed to really misinform consumers about how and why their data and personal information are being collected and harvested for microtargeting purposes. It’s really shameful that the Time Warner, its Platform A targeting service, and the AOL division are hiding behind these well-liked creatures. But they are doing so because the company doesn’t want to be honest with its users. What Time Warner should be telling consumers are some of the things it pitches to perspective and current advertisers. For example, it should tell consumers that they are being tracked and followed online so advertisers will know they are “demonstrating a specific behavior.” Or that it’s “an advertisers dream–the ability to target consumers…across thousands of websites…[while they] research their options…Through behavioral targeting–and retargeting–we keep your brand top of mind during this crucial consideration phase.” Or that when we are watching online video, Time Warner informs advertisers that it can tell them “[H]ow long did consumers view your ad? Did they visit your website as a result? Better yet, did they visit your store? Online video takes the best of TV and the best of online to create the ultimate solution–high-impact advertising with measurable results.”

Or that it can help them get “leads” for future pitches (think mortgage loans, etc). Will AOL’s Penguin say that it will give marketers “a high-volume” of leads that will “convert into an actual customer…that perform best for your goals.” Or that it can identify our behaviors and then place us for sale as part of consumers profiles to be targeted (such as whether they consider us to be a “Traveler, Health Seeker, Entertainment Buff, Auto Intender or Trendy Homemaker”), which include information about whether we have children at home, how much money we make, or our gender? I hope our Penguin will be telling consumers (and the FTC and the EU’s Article 29 Working Group) that its “insight Reports” provide marketers with “deep knowledge” [our emphasis] “[B]y combining TACODA behavioral segments with comScore’s MediaMetrix® database of online consumer demographics, Web site visitation patterns, and eCommerce buying power index, TACDOA is able to discover previously unknown key behavioral traits that may be non-intuitive and even counterintuitive behaviors. Our pre and post campaign analyses will help you identify your strategically important audiences in a snap.”

When asked to testify before Congress, as it debates privacy safeguards, we hope Time Warner’s Penguin will be able to explain its “Audience Point” service, which promises advertisers that they will be able to “[R]each the right audience….without waste…the first precision targeting solution giving audiences direct interaction with their likely customers.” Or that Time Warner, via, promises to “helps you reach your site visitors after they exit your site – reinforcing your brand positioning and driving users back to your site to complete a desired action. – converting browsers into buyers, and buyers into repeat buyers.”

Time Warner and the online ad industry have to be honest with consumers and citizens. They shouldn’t engage in playing games when it comes to protecting privacy. Here’s the real penguin Time Warner and AOL should be using:

The Penguin, as seen in Detective Comics

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

Leave a Reply