The online ad industry’s self-regulatory program is getting political. Online ads from political advertisers have begun featuring the Ad Choices icon, which notifies users that an ad has been targeted through behavioral data.
The icon is gradually making its way into display ads served by ad networks including Google. Ads from Mitt Romney for President and right-leaning group ForAmerica include the icon, in what appear to be some of the first examples of ads from political and advocacy advertisers to feature it. In the case of both groups, the ads and icon are served up by Google, and the icon links to a page explaining that the ad may have been targeted based “on the content of the webpages from participating websites that you’ve previously visited.”
From there, people can link to Google’s interest category manager and opt out of receiving ads targeted based on interests and demographics. The page also includes a link to the aboutads.info site, which lets people opt out of behavioral ads from any or all of the companies detected by the site’s system.
Rollout of the icon across the web was prompted by increased attention from legislators. In the face of Federal Trade Commission scrutiny and a recent rush of privacy bills intended to give people more control over the use of personal data for online ad targeting and other purposes, a coalition of ad trade associations launched the Digital Advertising Alliance. The self-regulatory group oversaw creation of the icon and the system that runs it in the hopes of staving off a new privacy law.
More and more political advertisers are using basic behavioral ad techniques such as retargeting – which points ads to people who have visited the candidate or organization’s site when they are on other sites around the Web. Especially when it comes to attracting independents and undecided voters, candidates and advocacy groups on the right and left can be expected to use more robust forms of behavioral ad targeting. For instance, they may use ad networks to find moms based on the fact that they have visited cooking sites, or young males who have visited sports sites.
As political advertisers boost their use of behavioral advertising, it is unclear how or if the new privacy laws would affect them. According to Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Consumer Privacy, a bill sponsored by Senators John Kerry and John McCain would cover nonprofits in addition to businesses.
So, were their Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011 to pass, nonprofits such as ForAmerica would be required to provide “clear, concise, and timely notice” of personal data collection, use, or transfer, most likely through an opt-out mechanism devised under purview of the FTC.
Political candidate campaigns, on the other hand, might still be able to run behavioral ads without providing such an opt-out. However, as ad networks disseminate the ad choices icon, it is bound to show up on more political ads regardless.