Power Players Making Privacy Strides?

I’ve addressed real and perceived privacy risks and consumer concerns in behavioral targeting in previous columns; I’ve also discussed the need for education to allay Big Brother fears. Now that major power players such as Google and Microsoft have acquired behavioral networks, it’s time to more publicly address the issue.

Microsoft recently unveiled a new privacy policy dictating it will make search query data anonymous after 18 months with the permanent removal of cookie IDs, entire IP addresses, or other identifiers from search terms. This comes on the heels of a similar announcement regarding cookies and search data from Google. They’re calling on the entire industry to implement a standard global privacy policy.

Now that the big boys are in the game, the rules are changing. The privacy story is being told in the open when it comes to third-party advertising. What does that mean for behavioral targeting practitioners?

It will likely mean several things. Now that Microsoft has brought the issue into the mainstream, third-party advertising firms’ privacy practices will come under more intense scrutiny. Behavioral targeting networks will have to formalize and enforce privacy policies, and communicate these practices to their consumers.

Who will set the standard? Should providers or consumers determine how data is accumulated, stored, shared, and used? Everyone has a stake, but the middlemen have the means and the resources to provide a standard as well as the technology to manage the data. It’ll likely take some time and a few tries to get it right in any event.

During this trial period, there will have to be a fair amount of consumer communication and relationship-building. Organizations like TRUSTe have done a good job of shedding light on the importance of privacy policies and responsible marketing. However, concerns about behavioral profiling have generally been expressed only by those consumers with a link to, or deeper knowledge of, the online marketing industry. The average consumer has little to no awareness of the intricacies of behavioral targeting, perhaps only going so far as to delete cookies without really knowing why.

But Microsoft is calling for improved user communication when it comes to behavioral targeting, giving consumers much more insight into privacy practices and policies and control over how their data is handled. When Microsoft talks, the industry tends to listen. It will be incumbent on the entire behavioral targeting industry to ensure consumers are aware of, and have some control over, the use of their behavioral data.

Implementing that type of control system won’t present a challenge for a Microsoft or a Google. But the smaller, independent behavioral targeting firms may find it challenging to get such a system off the ground in terms of technical and logistical implications. Only time will tell how pervasive privacy systems will become, but it may be wise for all behavioral targeting organizations to prepare for a future of increased transparency.

The FTC is investigating online data privacy issues, and all the power players will testify at the hearings this fall. With the FTC and names like Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo involved, more light is likely to be shed on this issue before the year is out, and the entire behavioral targeting environment is guaranteed to change.

The bad news is behavioral targeting practitioners, big and small, will have to get their privacy policies in order, which will take some effort. But the good news is the industry is now letting these names do the heavy lifting when it comes to educating consumers about behavioral targeting.

Competitive squabbling aside (it’s no coincidence Microsoft led the call for Google to be investigated after the DoubleClick acquisition), the mainstream consuming public pays attention to the goings-on at these companies, not just industry insiders. And bringing behavioral targeting out from behind the curtain, as it has been until recently, will do a great deal to soften the negative connotations surrounding the practice. I’m not expecting it all to be settled by the fall FTC hearings, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

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