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The Federal Trade Commission’s recent report on privacy offered a pretty damning indictment of the ad industry’s efforts to give consumers a…

Online Privacy Illustration
photo: Corbis / Jane Marinsky

The Federal Trade Commission’s recent report on privacy offered a pretty damning indictment of the ad industry’s efforts to give consumers a say in how and whether data about them is collected. The report said, in essence, that while there are ways for consumers to opt-out of behaviorally targeted advertising, they are often unclear, and consumers frequently don’t know about them.

As someone who hasn’t written a single story about the raging debate about data collection and targeted advertising– David and Joe have been doing so extensively for us — I was curious to see if the FTC’s concerns were warranted.

What I learned is that while most publishers don’t do a very good job of publicizing it, there is currently a pretty good one-stop shop for opting out: the Network Advertising Initiative web site, which represents dozens of ad networks. Here’s how I discovered that.

My first stop was the Yahoo home page, since it’s still the home page for millions of people. There, directly above the top ad for Allstate Insurance was the word “AdChoices” in gray, size 6 font. I clicked on the text and was presented with information about the ad as well as the “interest categories” Yahoo had associated with me. They knew I was interested in finance, investment, general health, TV, cars, and cats.

There was also a big yellow button that said “opt-out.” So I clicked on it. The whole process took about a second.

Further down the page, Yahoo suggested I visit the “Network Advertising Initiative to learn more about online behavioral advertising and to see your opt-out choices from other NAI member companies.” So I clicked on that too. The page listed 63 ad networks that use behavioral ad targeting to show ads. Users can see whether they have an “active cookie” on the ad network and select a box to “opt-out.” I had “active cookies” on 50 and was listed as having opted out of one — Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO). I clicked on “select all,” hit “submit, and within two minutes I was opted out of behaviorally targeted advertising on all 63 of the ad networks.

That’s not to say that the entire process is as easy as it could be. The Network Advertising Initiative opt-out page is laden with words like “cookie,” which might turn consumers off, and it also features one of the most boring web videos I have ever watched. (Representative line: “If you would like to change your options before submitting you can either uncheck each box individually or simply click on the clear button to clear your selections.”)

And, while you can opt out from seeing behaviorally-targeted ads directly on big sites like MSN, Yahoo, and Google (NSDQ: GOOG) because they, too, are in the behaviorally-targeted ad serving business, you can’t directly opt out on most publishers’ sites. On The Seattle Times site, which I visit often, for instance, I had regularly been seeing a Kayak ad touting flights between Seattle and London. That seemed like more than a coincidence, considering that I had been researching exactly that itinerary for weeks. But the ad had no icon on or near it allowing me to learn more.

Only several pages deep on the Timesprivacy policy page does it disclose that it works with several third-party ad networks, including Advertising.com and Tacoda “who may utilize cookies or web beacons to better provide advertisements about goods and services that may be of interest to you.” The Times notes that Advertising.com is a member of the Network Advertising Iniatiative and includes a link to the site for users who want to opt-out. (As for Tacoda, it’s no longer in business.)

But once you get to a page to opt-out it works. Network Advertising Initiative assistant director James Campbell tells us that the ad networks listed on his group’s page, which include all of the top 15 in the U.S., account for the “great majority of online behavioral advertising.” Having opted out, now when I go to the Times site, I see a generic ad for Kayak. And, on my personal blog, which I have enrolled in AdSense, I see ads for sleep trouble (a topic I have zero interest in) instead of for business schools (a topic I am actually interested in). (We can have a whole separate discussion about whether a world without behaviorally-targeted advertising is actually better than one with it, but I’ll save that for another day.)

The system is getting better too. The Network Advertising Initiative, for instance, is one of several groups participating in the launch of a new site, AboutAds.info, which also lets consumers opt-out of behavioral targeting on various ad networks. The site — which is currently in beta — is much more modern-looking than that of the Network Advertising Initiative, and the organization is encouraging ad networks that participate to include an icon or link with their ads that users can click on to learn how their personal data is being used and then opt-out if they want to.

Still, it’s not like no one is figuring out how to opt out in the current set up. Campbell says that in 2009, 300,000 people used his organization’s site to do so. That figure doesn’t include people who went directly to one of the big sites to opt-out from behavioral ads, or those who are just a bit more tech savvy and deleted cookies directly from their browser.

Have you opted out? if so, please tell me how your experience compared.

  1. It’s true that tracking companies have made significant progress in increasing participation in opt-out programs, as your experience attests. But if you want to understand why consumers and regulators continue to be concerned, consider these three points:

    1. The industry still won’t step up to say that opt-out cookies actually block tracking; if you read carefully the only assurance is that an opt-out will turn off ad targeting. Profile information may still be collected. That’s a huge difference in the minds of many consumers, who freak out not because they find targeted ads spooky, but because they find the idea of background profiling spooky. Fixing this requires modest back-end changes: for starters, the NAI could require that opt-out cookies overwrite any unique tracking cookies.

    2. Because many consumers clear cookies regularly or use multiple browsers, the burden is high on the consumer to keep NAI opt-outs in place, and the NAI has never offered a permanent cross-browser solution as part of their opt-out process. This failure has worked against the opt-out program itself, since it is now leading browser makers to less discriminating solutions like Microsoft’s Do Not Track feature in IE9.

    3. As you note, the NAI tool only covers NAI members. This is a bigger problem than you might think, since the NAI represent less than a third of the tracking companies we have inventoried at PrivacyChoice. As the use of exchanges and demand side platforms increases, so does the reach of smaller companies who don’t provide privacy assurances. The biggest exchange, Google, has yet to make NAI membership a condition to the use of behavioral data across the AdSense network.

    Here’s an experiment that illustrates these points. I ran the NAI opt-out process on a Windows 7 test machine running Firefox, with all cookies removed. Then I sent the machine to 207 web pages linked from the top page of Google News, and exporting the cookies left behind. Looking only at persistent cookies from tracking companies in the PrivacyChoice Index, the machine had over 50 cookies with sufficiently unique data to be usable for tracking, representing over four dozen companies (including several NAI members).

    With these kinds of results, it’s hard to give consumers much assurance that using the NAI tool provides comprehensive control over tracking. The good news for industry and consumers is that the new energy around privacy assurance will lead to more effective self-regulation. But we’re not there, yet.

    See the test results here:
    https://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=0AqeXMCmjjTCQdEVGRnNPN3ktejdFMmtia2ZNWHhRWUE&hl=en&output=html

    Index: http://www.privacychoice.org/companies/all

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  2. I tried using the NAI opt-out page on my iPad and opt-out attempts for 100+ ad networks failed except for Yahoo. What’s going wrong?

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  3. Actually Jim, to your first point — while data *is* collected even after opt-out by most ad networks (for things like ensuring the right number of impressions, accounting, fraud prevention and so on), the way it works at Yahoo! is that after a consumer opts out data we block that user’s data from hitting our ad profile systems. So we don’t just stop the targeting on the front end, we stop tracking on the back end. Data collection itself, in my view, does not equate to “tracking” and I think a more useful way to look at this is to examine use of data rather than simply collection of data.

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  4. I heard a lot of people are becoming rich from helping sue/prosecute violators of the CANN-SPAM and Do Not Call Act. Passing this legislation may help someone find a new revenue stream to create jobs and stop tracking at the same time.

    From my years of experience, there is absolutely little value in tracking individuals and people are unique and unpredictable – past performance does not indicate future results. Creating frameworks for peer-to-peer recommendations (word of mouth) is far more effective and cheaper to implement than personal data tracking.

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  5. i’ve read little (if anything) about the lawsuit(s) brought (and evidently quietly settled) against quantcast and their respawning flash cookies.

    wazzupwitdat?

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  6. Joseph Tartakoff Tuesday, December 21, 2010

    Thanks for the comments. They were super informative.

    – Joe Tartakoff, paidContent.org

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  7. There are benefits that are rarely discussed, for example Amazon recommendations. In regards to advertising and BT, a user will be served more relevant ads around their interests. Plus – the biggest point that isn’t told to consumers – it’s all personally unidentifiable.

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