DoubleClick Takes Initiative on Privacy

Leading advertising firm DoubleClick, recently under increasing pressure from privacy advocates, on Monday tried to turn things around in the privacy controversy, unveiling a major initiative that involves a 50 million banner ad campaign and a Web site to educate consumers on privacy.

“The future of the Internet relies on consumers feeling comfortable,” says Kevin Ryan, president of DoubleClick (DCLK), speaking at a news conference.

Still, privacy advocates were not satisfied by the initiative, saying it didn’t go far enough to address the issues. DoubleClick has been hit with four lawsuits in the past month, and has been the target of a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission and an email campaign organized by privacy advocates.

As part of what DoubleClick is calling its Internet Privacy Education Campaign, the company is running 50 million banner advertisements, which it estimates will reach between 30 and 50 million individuals over the next couple of months. The banners will link users to PrivacyChoices, a DoubleClick-sponsored Web site that contains information about the company’s privacy policy and gives consumers an opportunity to opt out of DoubleClick’s database.

“This is probably the largest campaign on Internet privacy that’s ever been done,” says Ryan. “When you go in and opt out, what it does is render you, from our point of view, as completely anonymous.”

DoubleClick says between 50,000 and 100,000 people have opted out of receiving targeted ads so far, and it expects more will opt out because of the new ad campaign.

The initiative also calls for DoubleClick to quit doing business with Web sites in the United States that fail to post and implement what it calls a “clear and effective privacy policy.” But DoubleClick didn’t specifically indicate what it would consider acceptable, and it didn’t say what it would do with its international advertising networks.

DoubleClick will also establish a consumer privacy advisory board, which will consist of consumer advocates, security experts and other privacy experts, to advise it on its policies. In addition, it’s creating a new executive position, chief privacy officer, which will be DoubleClick’s point person on the privacy issue.

The company has hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to perform periodic privacy audits, in an effort to assure consumers that DoubleClick is conforming with its own public statements and policies regarding privacy.

While DoubleClick has always held that it has been a leader where privacy is concerned, the company has been on the defensive recently as privacy advocates have ramped up the complaints against them.

The pressure began to mount after DoubleClick agreed to acquire Abacus Direct in the middle of last year, and concerns grew about how the advertising firm would match up online data with offline information that Abacus has compiled. The matching up of information has just begun to take place under the Abacus Alliance. DoubleClick estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people have given their personally identifiable information, the missing link between the online and offline data.

Privacy advocates are concerned that people aren’t aware of what their personal information is being used for, and consumers don’t realize what they’re getting into when they register on a site that shares its information with DoubleClick. Many advocates believe only an opt-in policy, in which consumers would specifically request to have their data gathered for ad targeting, would be effective and fair.

“To address the public’s privacy concern DoubleClick needs to fundamentally alter their information practices to ensure that individuals are in control of their personal information,” said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“If DoubleClick wants to make a serious statement about their commitment to privacy they should start by putting a halt to the Abacus Online Alliance until it is reviewed by the Consumer Privacy Advisory Board they intend to establish.”

Senator Robert Torricelli, D-New Jersey, last week introduced legislation — the Internet Privacy Act — that would create an opt-in standard, and the topic is a hot one on Capitol Hill.

DoubleClick, however, believes that an opt-out policy, the offline standard, should be acceptable online as well.

“Opt-out has really been the standard there, and we think that that’s the appropriate standard,” says Ryan. “The vast majority of people want the information linked.”

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