The behavioral ad sector’s self regulatory group hopes its latest initiative quiets concerns about cookie-based tools that allow consumers to opt-out from ad targeting. The new downloadable software from the Network Advertising Initiative acts as a browser-based hub for managing ad network opt-outs. Google, which is an NAI member, also took steps today to pacify consumer privacy watchdogs through a dashboard showing information the firm has gathered on individual users.
The moves come as the Federal Trade Commission plans a series of public roundtable talks on consumer privacy as it relates to behavioral advertising, mobile marketing, and other issues.
The FTC, along with critics of industry self-regulation, have argued that employing cookies to indicate that users have opted-out of ad network targeting is futile because people often delete cookies. The NAI Consumer Opt Out Protector is an open-source Firefox add-on that maintains opt-outs even when people clear their browser history or delete cookies. It doesn’t maintain non-opt-out cookies.
The plug-in offers a control panel allowing users to review all of the opt-out cookies currently being protected. The plug-in also notifies a user through the control panel if important information or updates are available. A user can also choose to install an additional trusted list of opt-out cookies from other companies via the control panel if they wish.
“This has been a recognition of criticism of opt-outs that are recorded in cookies,” explained NAI Executive Director Charles Curran. “It’s essentially designed to prevent the standard sweep of cookies that you get from a cookie cache dump…It’s designed to work with the browser functionality.”
The system, which the NAI expects to make available for use with other browsers including Microsoft IE in the future, is built on technology from behavioral data firm BlueKai. According to the company’s Web site, the system does not communicate with BlueKai nor does it create a log of consumer behavior. The NAI maintains the opt-out list for its registry, not BlueKai. In addition, the software can be used to manage other opt-out registries that might be developed in the future.
Earlier this year, FTC Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour suggested that cookie-based opt-out systems are unreliable and inadequate. “It is unrealistic to rely on an assumption that the opt-out cookie will remain on a user’s computer indefinitely,” she wrote. “Cookies can be and are deleted (intentionally or unintentionally) by individual users, automated software (e.g., anti-virus and anti-spyware tools), or chance…Rather than continuing to embrace this confusing and unreliable tool, industry should accept the reality that opt-out cookies are inadequate to protect consumer privacy.”
“We did consult [the FTC] for feedback and got some very helpful ideas from staff,” Curran told ClickZ News.
However, because the NAI software is only available on the organization’s Web site and linked from ad network privacy policies, and according to Curran, there are no plans for additional promotion of the system to consumers, it won’t necessarily quell criticism of online ad tracking and targeting.
“Even assuming that opt-out cookies could be placed permanently on a computer, it is difficult for consumers to find opt-out cookies at all,” continued Harbour in her February statement. “They are typically buried in the depths of a privacy notice or, worse, on an unrelated third-party website.”
In its own attempt to give Web users more control over online data, Google today unveiled a “Dashboard” allowing users to view and edit information associated with Google products such as Gmail, Calendar, Web History, and YouTube.
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