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Google, Ad Networks Tighten Privacy Controls

As concerns about online privacy persist, a pair of announcements emerged today that aim to give users more control over how their information is collected on the Internet.

This morning, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) unveiled a privacy dashboard to provide a snapshot of the data associated with a user's account across more than 20 Google products, such as YouTube, Picasa and Gmail.

Later today, the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a coalition of more than three dozen online ad networks, including Google, is set to release a browser plug-in that will create a persistent method for opting out of data collection across the sites where its members serve ads.

Both are instances of the self-regulatory approach to online privacy advocated by industry groups that warn against efforts by lawmakers and regulators to clamp down on behavioral ad targeting.

Earlier this year, a House subcommittee held a series of hearings exploring the privacy implications of online advertisers' data-collection practices, and Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the panel's chairman, said he planned to introduce a bill later this year.

Members of the broad-ranging online ad industry differ in their level of support for privacy legislation, but generally oppose efforts to enact laws or regulations that would set fine-grained controls over a fast-evolving and highly technical business.

Members of Google's privacy team often say that customers are "one click away" from leaving its sites, arguing that it's in the company's self-interest to protect its users' privacy.

The dashboard released today, available through the settings link on the Google home page, offers users a window into what information is stored in the profiles of each of their Google accounts, and offers a quick link to adjust the privacy settings.

In a company blog post, Google said the level of control the dashboard offers is "unprecedented." In truth, much of the information included in the dashboard was already accessible through people's profiles in each product, though the new effort brings them all together, making it easier to access and control.

Meantime, the NAI is planning to roll out a beta version of a browser plug-in that will create a persistent opt-out across its members' networks. The NAI already features a prominent button on its home page that allows users to opt out of having tracking cookies placed on their computers from advertisers in the networks. The problem was that that feature was itself a cookie, which meant that anytime users deleted cookies from their systems -- a fairly common practice among privacy-conscious Internet users -- the NAI's opt-out cookie was deleted along with the others.

[cob:Special_Report]Mozilla already offers a plug-in for its Firefox browser that accomplishes the same end, dubbed the Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out, or TACO, initially developed by a doctoral student at Indiana University.

A revamped version developed in-house at Mozilla offers a persistent opt-out for 90 ad networks.

"TACO is the work of an independent developer, so it hasn't been developed in coordination with the companies themselves," a spokesman for the NAI told InternetNews.com. "The NAI tool thus has much broader potential distribution."

The spokesman said the timing of the two announcements was a "complete coincidence, although it is another important sign that companies are taking these privacy issues very seriously and attempting to offer consumer-friendly solutions to help them manage their privacy online."

For privacy hawks like Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, the efforts of Google and the NAI are a sign that they're running scared, as both U.S. and European policymakers are pressing ahead with tough online privacy controls.

"Google, NAI and others are out in full lobbying mode on both sides of the Atlantic," Chester told InternetNews.com.