Ad group urges self-regulation to balance privacy, promos

Most Internet users would feel more confident that their privacy is protected online if advertisers and Web companies adhered to certain guidelines that limited the amount of data they can collect and offer consumers the ability to opt out of tracking, according to a new survey from the Digital Advertising Alliance, a coalition representing advertising associations and businesses.

The DAA is positioning the poll, which was conducted by Zogby Analytics, as the latest piece of evidence that a self-regulatory framework with broad industry participation can offer meaningful protections for consumer privacy on the Web.

Digital Advertising Alliance mission

The DAA is the group behind the Advertising Options icon that participating ad networks and advertisers—including heavy-hitters like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft—are incorporating into their ads to provide users notice about how information about their interests is being collected and the ability to limit that type of tracking. Each month, more than 1 trillion ads containing the DAA icon are served globally, according to the group.

Formed three years ago, the DAA has been working to provide consumers with information and tools to understand and manage the data that is being collected about them online, while warning against government regulations that could limit advertisers' ability to tailor their messages to consumers' interests. Interest-based advertising, the DAA argues, is the 'engine behind much of the free content and applications available on the Web.

"We as an industry have in fact subsidized the commercial Internet," Lou Mastria, managing director of the DAA, said in an interview.

Poll: Users receptive to targeted ads

In the poll of just more than 1000 Web users, 36.5 percent of respondents indicated that they would like to see ads that are more relevant to their interests. Mastria suggests that that figure, if anything, understates the value of tailored ads, which boast a conversion rate nearly twice as high as generic ads.

"It may not be obvious, they may not report it, but that's what the click-throughs tell us," Mastria says. "It's a little like electricity. You expect it to be there. You turn on the Internet, you expect it to be relevant."

digital advertising alliance

When survey respondents were asked if they would feel more comfortable about how their information was being used if Web pages offered a mechanism to opt out of tracking, if there was a prohibition against collecting sensitive data about areas such as health and finance, or if there was an enforcement program to punish bad actors in the advertising space, a large majority (73 percent) said that either one or all of those protections would ease their privacy concerns.

The wording of that question was no accident—companies that sign onto the DAA's framework are subject to each of those conditions. To date, the Direct Marketing Association and the Better Business Bureau, which are jointly responsible for enforcing DAA compliance, have brought 26 public actions against member companies, each of which has resulted in bringing the offending party into compliance, according to Mastria.

(Note: International Data Group, the publisher of CIO.com, PCWorld, and TechHive, among other sites, is one of the companies that participates in the DAA's self-regulatory privacy framework.)

DAA's Do-Not-Track effort

At the same time, when the pollsters asked what guidelines respondents believed are currently in place for advertisers' collection of users data, just 12.6 percent identified the contours of the DAA's program in the multiple-choice survey.

Mastria acknowledges that that finding suggests that group has more to do to get its message out to the public—and the DAA is planning to refresh its public outreach campaign in the coming months—though he stresses the youth of the program and sees even the modest awareness of just over 10 percent as a success.

"To have that number there, I think that's pretty good in three years. Any brand would be pretty lucky to have that recognition in that short a time," he says. "We're not done. Our education component isn't done."

Education is only one element of the DAA's work. The group has also been deeply involved with the efforts to develop a common framework for a do-not-track setting in Web browsers.

Then in September, the group announced that it was severing ties with the working group established by the World Wide Web Consortium to develop a do-not-track standard.

According to Mastria, the W3C has been focused on developing a technical solution to what he sees more as a policy issue, and that after two years with little progress to show, the DAA opted to launch its own effort to build a consensus around how do-not- track should work.

"We have to have a pretty high level of certainty that we are going to get somewhere, that we are going to put out a product," Mastria says of the W3C's work. "We just didn't see that in the offing."

The DAA has already convened one meeting with various stakeholders in its new do-not-track initiative, and Mastria says that he hopes to unveil a framework for the standard within the next few months.

Asked why he believes that the DAA-led effort can succeed where the W3C working group could not, Mastria replies: "That's a fair question. And honestly that's something we talked about."

But he points to the DAA's track record of pushing out codes of conduct that a broad array of advertisers have signed onto, which the group is now expanding to include the mobile Web.

"That's what gives me confidence," Mastria says. "We've done this before, and we can do it again."

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