Ad industry launches behavioral tracking self-regulation initiative

The advertising and direct marketing communities and the Council of Better Business Bureaus formally unveiled their long-awaited behavioral self-regulation initiative on October 4, describing it as a “large and major effort” to offer consumers more transparency about marketers’ behavioral tracking.

Participating marketers will include an “advertising option” symbol on their ads, giving consumers a choice of opting out of behavioral tracking. The Council of Better Business Bureaus will also monitor websites’ tracking to assure they comply with the “Self Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising.” The groups will also operate a website for consumers and push advertisers and marketers to comply with the principles.

Whether the “advertising option icon” program will satisfy Washington concerns about behavioral tracking remains uncertain.

Just last week, David Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said that while self-regulation is normally one part of a solution on privacy issues, he was “disappointed” in marketers’ progress to date.

“We have heard some great ideas about guidelines for behavioral advertising … but implementation is still very much a work in progress,” he said. “I urge the industry to get moving quickly … consumers – and the FTC – may lose their patience.”

Vladeck didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither did several lawmakers who either introduced legislation or talked about introducing privacy bills.

The “advertising option” initiative was unveiled by a group of marketing organizations, including the Association of National Advertisers, the Direct Marketing Association, the Interactive Ad Bureau and the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Representatives of the groups were hopeful Congress and the FTC would view the program positively.

“I’m hopeful that when they see the whole program in practice, they will say, ‘Wow’ and give it time to work,” said Linda Woolley, EVP of government affairs at the DMA. “To do anything without seeing whether this could work would not be a good public policy decision.”

Dan Jaffe, EVP at the Association of National Advertisers, said that because the program requires monitoring of what happens behind the scenes on the Web, it is a bigger initiative than previous ad industry self-regulatory efforts.

“This is an extremely large and major effort, the most extensive self regulatory [initiative] ever launched by the advertising community,” he said.

Jaffe also warned about attempts to ban behavioral ads, saying the result would hurt consumers and businesses.

“Some of the types of proposals put forward to restrict behavioral advertising would be disadvantageous to us and disadvantageous to consumers,” he said. “It would undermine all the media that help provide an economic foundation for the Web.”

Privacy advocates dismissed the marketers’ move.

“It’s too little, too late,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “It’s a rather pathetic initiative. It’s sort of sad.”

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, said the initiative “isn’t a terrible thing,” but that after a decade of self regulation, “now is the time for rules.”

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