Consumer Advocates to Corner Congress with Behavioral Targeting Recommendations

 
 
By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-08-31
 
 
 

Consumer advocacy groups Sept. 1 plan to attack behavioral targeting practices from search engines and other Internet companies in a press conference call designed to catch the ear of Congress, which is drafting legislation to better protect Web surfers' privacy.

The Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and seven other groups said they will make recommendations urging Congress to address "the increasingly common practice of online behavioral tracking and targeting."

In behavioral targeting, cookies and other monitoring tools collect information on users' Web browsing habits, tracking such data as Web pages users visit or searches they've made. Search engine and Web analytics specialists use this behavioral information to better tailor online advertising campaigns for Web surfing consumers, believing such techniques reap higher online ad returns rates.

Yahoo and Microsoft have employed behavioral targeting in the search engines for years. Google, which built its search advertising empire on keyword-based contextual links, resisted this practice until March of this year, when its AdSense group began practicing "interest-based advertising." This is behavioral targeting with a less sinister-sounding name. 

Google's interest-based ads associate categories of interest with users' Web browsers, tracking the sites users visit to place more relevant text and display ads in front of users. For example, a user doing searches on sports contests may later see ads on sporting goods stores. Google explains how this ad system works in detail here.

The practice of using consumers' Web-browsing habits to yield a higher online ad profits isn't sitting well with consumer and privacy advocates, which feel companies are unnecessarily encroaching on user privacy to make more money. To these groups, it is the Big Brother is watching argument applied to modern Internet search engines.

"Today, electronic information from consumers is collected, compiled, sold secretly and without reasonable safeguards," the groups said in a statement before the call. "Tracking people's every move online is an invasion of privacy. It's like being followed by an invisible stalker - individuals aren't aware that it's happening, who is tracking them, and how the information will be used."

The press rally comes as the House Commerce Committee is drafting legislation to improve consumer privacy online. Congress held hearings on the issue in June, hearing testimony from legal counsel from Facebook, Google and Yahoo.

The Federal Trade Commission issued an exhaustive 48-page report in February that urged updated principles for self-regulation before Congress creates its own legislation on the subject.

The report, "Self-Regulatory Principles For Online Behavioral Advertising," calls for participating companies to notify consumers that behavioral information is being mined for use in online advertising, rather than burying such information in the privacy policy.

During the call tomorrow, consumer advocates are likely to urge Congress to create laws legally requiring companies to let consumers know that behavioral targeting is being employed on certain Web sites. They may further argue that Web sites using such advertising add an opt-in button consumers must click in order for their behavior to be tracked.

Behavioral targeters are reticient to do this; Web surfers are hesitant to opt-in to services that would allow their browsing behavior to be tracked without some form of benefit or compensation.   

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