Consumers' privacy falls on marketers

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Carol Krol, editor in chief, Direct Marketing News
Carol Krol, editor in chief, Direct Marketing News

Industry self regulation of online behavioral tracking is falling far short of expectations, according to a Stanford University Security Lab study published in July. Online ad companies, including 24/7 Real Media and AudienceScience, violated their own policies on tracking opted-out consumers, according to the research (see "Self-regulatory programs in hot seat over effectiveness"). The study found that 33 member companies of the Network Advertising Initiative's self-regulatory program complied with consumers targeting opt-out requests, but continued to track behavior.

The Digital Advertising Alliance's Advertising Option icon is another example of industry self regulation providing a way for consumers to opt out of targeted ads, but its principles don't forbid third-party ad companies from tracking opted-out consumers. 

Carmaker Chrysler Group announced in May that it was attaching behavioral tracking opt-out technology to its own online ads, as well as ads running on its website through a partnership with Evidon, a online behavioral advertising compliance company. That's an important step, but privacy advocates remain wary of lesser-known ad players. 

Despite voluntary programs such as the NAI's and the DAA's and proactive efforts by blue-chip marketers, consumers are still not privy to exactly how and by whom their personal information is used. This is yet another case of perception is reality, and marketers and marketing-industry players disrespect customers' privacy and preferences at their own peril. The Do Not Track Online Act of 2011, only one of several online privacy bills in the works, would mandate the creation of a Do Not Track mechanism to allow consumers to opt out of online and mobile tracking.

Mobile privacy worries that have cropped up in recent months around Apple's and Google's location-monitoring programs through mobile devices only underscore this issue. 

Brands will need to balance using location-based targeting with customer sensitivity around tracking. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law has been examining mobile location data usage and how much is shared, particularly with third parties. Education about the benefits of companies getting to know customer habits, while respecting limits about information-sharing, is the only way forward to beneficial, long-lasting connections.

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