Google, Yahoo and TRUSTe Advance Self-Reg Plans

Google, Yahoo and privacy certification firm TRUSTe have each taken steps to advance industry self-regulation for online behavioral advertising. Google and Yahoo are switching to the standard behavioral ad icon associated with the Digital Advertising Alliance’s self-regulatory initiative. Meanwhile, TRUSTe is trying to help consumers prevent online tracking by bad actors.

Whether the moves will assuage concerns among Federal Trade Commissioners and legislators backing privacy bills is anyone’s guess.

Yahoo recently began including the same icon in behavioral ads that is used by other Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) member companies. Now, Google is finalizing preparations to do the same.

“We’ll soon start to change our in-ads notice icon to a new icon that expands to an ‘AdChoices’ label,” wrote Google exec Lisa Shieh on the company’s AdWords blog today. “With the change from our ‘i’ icon and ‘Ads by Google’ label to these new notifications, we hope to show our support for this cross-industry initiative, and to increase our users’ understanding about ad choices through adoption of an icon they’ll see on ads across the web.”

The triangle-shaped icon was recently adopted by Yahoo for its own behaviorally-targeted network display ads, according to a company spokesperson who talked with ClickZ News yesterday. Yahoo had been including a slightly different circular image in ads to alert consumers to behavioral ad options.

Both Google and Yahoo link the ad icons to tools allowing users to alter the interest-related categories the firms associate them with, and to opt out of receiving behaviorally-targeted ads. Google’s opt-out disables its interest data-related cookie and strips interest and demographic information from the user’s browser. Yahoo’s opt-out also stops data collection through its partner sites using the firm’s analytics products.

verizon-evidon2The icon has been seen on behaviorally-targeted ads from Verizon lately, though the appearance of the AdChoices symbol in that case has been implemented by Evidon. Evidon runs the backend system used by the DAA to monitor ad networks and targeting companies for compliance with the self-regulatory group’s behavioral ad notice and choice principles.

Though it has nothing to do with the alliance’s monitoring system, TRUSTe also enables the standard icon in ads for clients, as does DoubleVerify. The icons implemented by the firms launch a window featuring links to information about the ad and to the alliance’s AboutAds.info site. From there consumers can opt out of receiving ads from several ad networks and targeting companies associated with the alliance.

Adding to the complexity of the self-regulatory program, some of those opt-outs only stop behavioral ad targeting, but do not stop data tracking. The FTC has indicated this is a key element of its proposed do-not-track mechanism, and a downfall of the self-regulatory program. During last week’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on online privacy, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said a suitable system “should allow [consumers] to opt out of tracking altogether.”

In order to obtain data collection certification, companies collecting data on third-party sites may not collect personally identifiable information from users on those sites. They also cannot link behavioral data to personally identifiable information “unless Choice has been first provided to the Individual,” according to TRUSTe’s guidelines. The TRUSTe system may not satisfy some who would like all data trackers blocked. While consumers can change the settings to alter which firms are allowed and which are blocked, only sophisticated people with knowledge of which domains are actually associated with third parties will be able to do that, said Bob Bahramipour, VP of business development at TRUSTe.

“This new program will also serve to address any Do-Not-Track header programs as the industry works on implementation specifics and consensus,” stated the company in a press release. In addition to IE, Mozilla’s latest version of Firefox includes a feature that signals through an HTTP header that the user has opted out of tracking. Though the browser header approach is in line with the FTC’s do-not-track proposal, it is unclear whether companies tracking user data will acknowledge the header-based opt-outs.

“There’s a bigger conversation about whether cookies are even the right infrastructure through which platforms” enable ad targeting, frequency capping, and other tracking-related processes, said Bahramipour. “From that will flow how we should honor opt-outs moving forward” he continued.

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