It’s Hard To Opt Out Of Behavioral Targeting? Really? Our Experiment

Online Privacy Illustration

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.

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