Total Pageviews

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Digital Ad Industry Gets Dressed Down in Washington

Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat, lambasted the digital advertising industry on Wednesday for failing to voluntarily honor privacy requests from online consumers called “Do Not Track” signals.

These are settings in Internet browsers â€" like Firefox from Mozilla and Chrome from Google â€" that individual users may activate to indicate that they do not want advertisers to collect information about their activities across the Web.

In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission recommended that industry adopt such a browser-based system to give consumers a simple one-time mechanism to opt out of data-mining for advertising purposes. In February 2012, the Digital Advertising Alliance, a trade group, pledged to honor such Do Not Track browser signals â€" under certain conditions.

Since then, however, negotiations between advertising groups and privacy advocates have bogged down over basic questions of how exactly to define, standardize and respond to the privacy signals. Although major browsers now allow users to express their preferences about online tracking, very few companies now honor browsers’ don’t track me flags.

Frustrated by the seemingly slow progress, Mr. Rockefeller grilled industry representatives on Wednesday afternoon at a hearing about Do Not Track by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Do Not Track “is still just an idea, not a reality,” said Mr. Rockefeller, who is the chairman of the committee. “What exactly is the holdup?”

In his testimony at the hearing, Lou Mastria, the managing director of the Digital Advertising Alliance, responded that the industry had set up an online program, “Your AdChoices,” which consumers may use to opt out of receiving tailored ads â€" ads, that is, that are based on data collected about a user’s online activities and preferences.

His group and its members, Mr. Mastria said, “provide meaningful and effective consumer choice tools to consumers that, with the click of one button, provides consumers with the exact choice that a browser setting could provide.”

Although the industry ad choices program does put some limits on its members’ use of consumer data â€" restricting it to activities like fraud prevention and security â€" Mr. Rockefeller says the industry’s exceptions for market research and other uses promote unfettered data collection about consumers’ online activities. The senator introduced a bill in February that would direct the F.T.C. to create standards for Do Not Track mechanisms as well as develop rules that prohibit companies for collecting data about consumers who opt out of tracking.

“I do not want to hear assertions that the current self-regulatory scheme fulfills Do Not Track requests,” Mr. Rockefeller said. Under the ad industry’s current program, he said, “companies continue to collect vast amounts of consumer data and only promise to not use this information for specific purposes, such as targeted advertising.”