DoubleClick Subject Of Latest Privacy Flap

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New York ad network DoubleClick denies allegations made by privacy advocates in USA Today this week that it is invading consumer privacy.

This most recent stir was caused by an article that said DoubleClick has begun collecting names and addresses at partner Web sites and plans to marry consumers' clicking behavior with catalog purchasing behavior from Abacus Direct Corp., which DoubleClick acquired on Nov. 23.

About a dozen Web sites have begun taking names and addresses as part of the effort, DoubleClick executives confirmed. They declined to name the sites, citing competitive concerns, but said they would like all of the 11,000 sites using DoubleClick's ad serving solution to participate.

"Direct marketers have learned over 20 years that the best predictor of future purchase is past purchase," said Jonathan Shapiro, senior vice president at DoubleClick.

Abacus Direct, Broomfield, CO, manages the largest co-op database of consumer catalog buying habits in the United States. It holds records from 1,100 catalogs direct marketers use to predict purchasing behavior in 88 million homes.

As people register at sites participating in DoubleClick's personalization scheme, the company will place cookies - or tracking technology - in their computers' hard drives and cross-reference their registration information with Abacus data. DoubleClick then plans to track their behavior across sites in its network to gauge their interests and build profiles for ad targeting purposes.

Privacy advocates' main beef with the plan are:

• DoubleClick changed its privacy policy to work Abacus into its business plan.

• The data collection is done on an opt-out basis.

Before the Abacus acquisition, DoubleClick's privacy policy said it would not collect personally identifying information.

"The fight is about the presumption of anonymity on the Web," said privacy advocate Jason Catlett, president at Junkbusters Inc., Green Brook, NJ. "If DoubleClick succeeds, then the presumption of anonymity on the Web is destroyed. As soon as a person shares their identity on a single site, then DoubleClick knows who they are on tens of thousands of sites."

Indeed, DoubleClick is banking that Abacus' offline data will help it target qualified buyers and avoid delivering ads to people who show repeated interest in something but are not qualified prospects, as can be the case when serving ads based solely on clicking behavior. Abacus in turn, theoretically, could use DoubleClick's profiling technology to help its catalog customers find strategies to attract high-quality traffic to their Web sites. Though it is collecting information, DoubleClick claims it hasn't finished developing its profiling technology.

Industry watchers have questioned how DoubleClick was going to merge online and offline data without stirring controversy ever since the firm announced in June that it planned a $1 billion acquisition of Abacus.

To quell consumer fears, DoubleClick claims all sites participating in the initiative must provide notice of the following:

• The site is capturing personally identifiable information.

• The information will be shared with a third party and combined with offline and online information.

• The information will be used to target ads in the future.

"We're committed to giving them the notice they need to make an informed decision and the choice to participate or not," Shapiro said.

DoubleClick also claims it will not warehouse data on sensitive areas such as health, finances, adult entertainment and children's activities.

Still, Catlett, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Washington, and other privacy advocates plan to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by Feb. 16.

"It's not purely an economic issue," Catlett said. "It's a societal and human rights issue. You have to ask if it's right for DoubleClick to change the default assumption on the Web from anonymous to identified."

The FTC and the Department of Commerce had a workshop on Internet profiling in November, but it is not clear if any progress has been made since.

Meanwhile, other companies are also in a race to marry online and offline data for marketing purposes. In October, marketing services company announced it had signed an exclusive deal with The Polk Co. to use the data giant's offline information to help e-commerce sites deliver more targeted offers to their visitors. In August, Internet ad network 24/7 Media Inc. revealed it was involved in Naviant Technology Solutions' $46.5 million acquisition of database concern from Intelliquest and planned to use the data to send targeted banner ads.

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