These past couple of weeks have become a hotbed of debate around pushing the boundaries of online privacy, something I have been heralding about for ages, which is now all over the industry press and even the mainstream media.

Fuelled in part by recent acquisitions by Google who bought DoubleClick, Microsoft who bought aQuantative/Atlas and then AOL’s acquisition of Tacoda, a behavioural ad network company, the thing in common with all is that they foresee a way to enable advertisers to use data about consumers in ways that were not possible in any other media before.

In 2000 the fiasco surrounding DoubleClick’s use of cookies for advertising purposes saw them being sued by users citing ‘invasion of privacy by secretly collecting personal and private data, such as e-mail addresses – i.e. unauthorised access to users’ data’. The case was eventually thrown out in 2001, but not before highlighting the role of cookies to the average online user as opposed to lurking in the backs of minds of IT staff.

Companies fight to protect cookies 

But when you consider companies like Amazon who have shown the value in product recommendations, and the personalisation of web pages assimilating content for you, there has a been a general decline in cookie deletion and with it a blur on what is considered private.

Finding relevant products or content is only part of the picture, finding a way to personalise advertising and match the relevant brand to the consumer’s choices is big business.

Monitoring what is being shown and acted upon to find the next advert to show in sequence is the essence of behavioural advertising. Understanding that in relation to a user’s preference of topics of interest or brand favourability is moving into the realms of user profiling. Linking this through to consumer patterns or the purchasing lifecycle, or the environmental concerns of where a user is at online – creating content, communicating or researching information – all have a bearing upon user receptivity to advertising. Moving out of a web browser to the dynamic desktop, and then a different device such as a mobile or IPTV set all throw a range of considerations that influence the shape of how and what advertising must become. It also allows a whole host of data that can be collected and analysed.

Will what we do or don’t do with an advert have a bearing on the content that will be suggested, such as viewing and interacting with an Audi advert suggest the Audi TV channel to carry on my brand experience? The recent acquisitions suggest it so.

Sitting with a laptop on my knee in front of the TV, Microsoft has seen a positive incline in online searches of brands that they have just been exposed to via a TV ad. The Google-DoubleClick deal raises the possibility of serving ads based on a combination of which web sites people have visited against records of a user’s search history.

As exciting as all this is and the potential for the advertising industry as a whole as digital permeates all other media channels, at the heart of all of this is the user. If web 2.0 has shown us anything, is that we need to listen as well as talk to them and no where more so then where there is a natural volatile hostility towards advertising per se on the consumers part.

To not address this and to steam-roll ahead will end up in backlash and possible brand destruction for technology companies and advertisers alike. It is therefore in OUR interest to embrace all the discussions upon user privacy that are taking place right now.

It seems though the industry plays bat-and-ball over this issue though, swaying from one side to the other that is rather like watching a game of tennis.

In 2005, Tacoda began recruiting web publishers to pool their data together in an effort to run higher priced band advertising, using the data about user journeys and habits on one site and using it to influence the correct message to be displayed upon another site.

Will Web Publishers Share Data To Better Target Ads?

Then on the other side, consider what happened in 2006, when an AOL employee published search queries made by 650,000 users in a three-month period. Although the company did not publicly post users’ identities, within days The New York Times located and profiled one of the “anonymous” users via their search queries alone.

But Do Consumers Care About Online Privacy? was the question posed by Advertising Age. Though tempted to say an obvious “yes” pointing to the sales of home shredders as evidence, when you consider the freedom of posting of personal information on social network sites like Facebook, I am not so sure. There just seems to be a whole lot of confusion as to what online privacy actually means, as the article itself reveals.

“Consumers fundamentally misunderstand the rules of the marketplace,” said Chris Hoofnagle, senior staff attorney at the Samuelson Clinic at UC-Berkley’s Boalt School of Law, addressing a perceived apathy toward the subject. He cites studies in which up to 75% of consumers think as long as a site has a privacy policy it means it won’t share data with third parties. “They equate the presence of the policy with substantive privacy rules.”

With conferences this year hosted by the International Association of Privacy Professionals and then the recent one by Federal Trade Commission in the US, it is evident to all that our methods for defining and protecting privacy are out dated. Even the UK’s Data Protection Act was last revised in 1998 could not be adequate to cover the 61% of UK residents who now regularly use the internet.

In an article on ZDNet entitled The new urgency to fix online privacy, Eric J. Sinrod captures the moment most eloquently;

“Privacy is like oxygen. You don’t normally pay attention but when it is gone, the problem is immediate and real.”

It has certainly been heard loudly by ears nearer to home, as in an unprecedented stance, the European Commission this week said it was going to take until 2nd April 2008 to take a second review investigating the Google-DoubleClick merger after concerns about unfair competition issues were highlighted by Yahoo who suggested they should look a little deeper. As Google on its own controls somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the paid-search advertising market, adding DoubleClick would give it the lead in display ad placement as well. But in Brussels, many of the mounting objections filed to the commission in recent weeks centred on privacy issues, rather than questions about how the merger would affect competition.

Then we have Facebook, who continually annoys me in the same way a spotty-teenager with an attitude problem just turns and says “so, whatever” when questioned over its policies, and then arrogantly insists on pushing all known boundaries. Facebook’s Social Ads which combines actions taken by a users’ friends – like a purchase, review or a service – with an advertiser’s message.

Well I for one am glad that that New York’s lawyers are saying what Facebook is doing is ‘illegal’ under their local laws of not being allowed to use a person’s name or photograph for advertising purposes without their explicit permission, i.e. did the person meaningfully consent to the endorsement?

New Facebook Ad Techniques Raise Privacy Concerns
“I don’t see how broad general consent to share one’s information translates into the specific written consent necessary for advertisers to use one’s name (and often picture) under this law” states William McGeveran, association professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis.

At the same time we see mounting pressure to protect online consumers in the same vein as ‘do-not-call’ lists help home-owners keep telemarketers at bay. Consumer privacy groups have formed an alliance together to call for the creation of a ‘do-not-track’ list for people who don’t want online ad networks to track and store data on their online activities stating that ‘Internet users are more “vulnerable” than ever to increasingly sophisticated advertising techniques that depend on tracking and compartmentalizing people’s behavior and preferences’. They have been putting increasing pressure on the Federal Trade Commission in the US to set one up, flying in the face of behavioural targeting methods.

AOL seems to be leading the way with their own banner ad campaign explaining its policy and telling consumers how to block behaviourally targeted ads. But when you consider the Tacoda acquisition which signifies AOL’s whole hearted belief in generating huge revenue growth from behavioral targeting, it does seem like a smoke-screen designed to appease consciences, hoping that precious few will actually do anything about it.

“We all have to build toward a future where we are delivering ads people want and not just ads we want people to see,” said Dave Morgan, the founder of Tacoda who now works at AOL. “The only way to do that is to listen to consumers.”

Yet again the bat-and-ball approach shows a total opposite side here in the UK as ‘online publishers including The Guardian, News International, The FT and Emap are forming an alliance to boost their proposition by sharing information on reader behaviour. The group, which also includes The Telegraph, Associated Northcliffe and Future, is in talks with US behavioural targeting company Revenue Science’ as reported by New Media Age.

There are clear values to both sides of the argument and I for one find myself increasingly torn over where I stand on behavioural targeting. I believe permission and conversation are the only way forward, we can not blindly assume, neither can we let technology run away with itself. Providing we handle people’s data with care, treating them as indeed ‘people’ and see ourselves in the industry as mere marshals along the side of the racetrack, we can assist in users making their own decisions over the brands they wish to engage with and then offer them tools to make the conversation easier, knowing at any one moment they may just get bored of the conversation and want to leave – and if that happens, you have to respect their right to walk away…

Truste privacyAnd there is always hope in organisations like TRUSTe who seeks to ensure personal information is protected online. They have a Watchdog Dispute Resolution Form that ‘is an online tool that allows you to report violations of posted privacy statements, specific privacy concerns pertaining to TRUSTe member Web sites, and violations by Networking Advertising Initiative members of the Online Preference Marketing Principles.’