A step forward in privacy v utility?

March 5, 2009

Another development in the utility and privacy conflict around the use of the internet is the publication of principles to govern online behavioural advertising (“OBA”) in the UK.   OBA is advertising targeted at the identified interests of a particular user where the user interest has been identified from data showing the user’s internet activity profile.  Even today, many users do not know that their personal data are being collected for this purpose.

A trade association of advertisers, the Internet Advertising Bureau (“IAB”) has published its guidelines for OBA in the UK. One of the aims of the IAB is to promote industry best practice.  The ‘Good Practice Principles’ are designed to protect the privacy of individuals and ensure that all signatories keep their advertising practices within the scope of what is reasonable and honest. Signatories to the guidelines include internet companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo. However, some critics have argued that the principles lack any real substance and do no more than the bare minimum required to protect an individual’s privacy.

The principles of good practice are based around three core elements that are designed to ‘build trust and understanding…and enable users to control the use of information’.

1. Notice: requires each member to provide clear and unambiguous notice that it collects data for the purpose of OBA. The notice should also include further information on how to decline OBA.
2. User choice: requires each member to provide an approved means for users to decline OBA alongside information about how to control and delete cookies.
3. Education: requires each member to provide information about OBA and to ensure that such information is easily accessible. Examples of how to make information more accessible include using understandable language and user-friendly formats. Members are also required to provide a link to the IAB’s information portal at www.youronlinechoices.co.uk.

Consumer rights groups however, maintain that in principle the guidelines do not go far enough to protect individual web users. Much of the onus remains on consumers to protect themselves and change their own internet settings rather than putting an obligation on the advertisers to provide a single way to opt-out. Some consumer groups and critics are of the opinion that users should be given the chance to opt-in, thereby ensuring that they do not unwittingly provide information that they would otherwise refuse to give. This, they argue would afford users the control that the IAB apparently sought to give by introducing the guidelines.

Not surprisingly the IAB have chosen the path of least resistance as far as the advertisers are concerned. With advertising revenues driving much of the free internet services that are available to consumers, the sharing of information is the price to pay by consumers for the continued provision of those services although business need to go about this in a transparent and responsible manner.


Related pages:

Data protection privacy & emarketing more

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