Yahoo Opens Behavioral Ad Data Curtain

As the Federal Trade Commission hosts yet another privacy related discussion today, Yahoo unveiled a platform giving users more control over how Yahoo profiles them for behavioral ad targeting. The system, similar to one offered by Google, lets users view the types of information tracked and stored by Yahoo, adjust how they’re categorized, and opt out of being targeted on Yahoo and its publisher partner sites.

“We’re pulling back the veil a little bit, ” said Anne Toth, Yahoo VP of policy and head of privacy, adding the company recognizes how important online data privacy is to legislators and regulators.

The Ad Interest Manager system displays which content categories — such as auto, mail, or entertainment — Yahoo associates with a user, exposing how they’re profiled based on their searches and which pages they visit. It also attributes a score of low, medium, or high depending on how much interest users show in particular categories. Until now, the company has allowed users to opt out of behavioral ad targeting, but has not displayed their targeting profiles before, nor let them alter their interest categories.

As with Google’s Ads Preferences Manager, users can edit the interests the system attributes to them. Yahoo said the tool differs from Google’s because it shows users examples of pages and searches that informed how they’re categorized.

According to David Zinman, Yahoo VP and GM for display advertising in North America, the Yahoo tool exposes categorization “in near real-time,” and enables changes to Yahoo’s ad targeting system based on users’ edits “in near real-time as well.”

“We’re trying to demystify this process for consumers,” added Toth.

The notion of educating consumers about behavioral ad targeting is not new. Three years ago, also in response to government pressure, behavioral ad firm Tacoda (now owned by AOL) began serving ads explaining how it worked with publishers to target what it called “relevant” ads. That effort was launched in conjunction with another FTC event, a hearing on “Protecting Consumers in the Next Tech-ade,” held in November 2006.

Behaviorally-targeted display ads served through Google’s network include a link which takes users to the Preferences Manager platform. There, users can opt out of such targeting, or adjust the interests Google associates with them.

Last week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau launched its own ad campaign as part of its ongoing attempt to quell government regulation of the online ad industry. The ads provide information about behavioral targeting, and link to additional explanation on the trade group’s site.

Today in Washington, D.C. the FTC is hosting a day-long public roundtable discussion on issues related to collection and use of consumer data, including behavioral advertising.

Like most if not all other similar systems, Yahoo’s continues to track users who opt-out from behavioral targeting through the tool. “We stop using that information in our advertising system; we don’t stop collecting information,” said Toth, who explained that the company continues to track opt-out users for traffic measurement, as well as fraud and security purposes.

When people opt out of Yahoo’s behavioral targeting, the ad system will not serve them behavioral ads on Yahoo nor on Yahoo’s publisher partner sites, such as those of its newspaper consortium. “These tools apply wherever Yahoo serves ads,” said Zinman.

Yahoo plans to release the new tool to European users “in the coming weeks,” according to the company.

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