Privacy Groups Seek ‘Do Not Call’ List for Web Ads

Consumer privacy groups are pushing for increased regulatory oversight of online advertising, including a “Do Not Track” registry that would ban companies from tracking online users and targeting ads based on their activities.

The groups, which include the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumer Action, sent a proposal to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking for it to oversee a mandatory “Do Not Track” registry.

The registry would loosely follow the model of the successful national and state “Do Not Call” registries that prevent telemarketers from making unsolicited sales pitches to consumers who have signed.

The online advertising industry, however, has long claimed that targeted ads are more relevant to consumers, and thus more useful and interesting to them.

In their petition to the FTC, the groups also said they want online advertisers to instantly reveal to Web users the specifics of the information they are tracking.

“The online tracking and targeting of consumers … needs to be limited so that consumers can exercise meaningful, granular preferences based on timely and contextual disclosures that are understandable on whichever devices consumers choose to use,” the groups wrote in their proposal to the FTC. “Specifically, we urge the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to take proactive steps to adequately protect consumers as online behavioral tracking and targeting become more ubiquitous.”

The groups’ proposal comes as AOL, one of the largest players in online media, is undertaking efforts to address a glitch in how its Web sites handle consumer requests to opt-out of receiving marketing messages.

The online media giant today announced an improvement to its opt-out system, which better protects customers from being mistakenly solicited by the company’s Web sites if they’ve asked to no longer receive marketing messages.

Typically, if a user decides not to accept getting messages or ads from one Web site, that preference is noted in a Web browser cookie. However, under the current system, if they then delete that cookie, that site no longer can tell that the user has opted out of receiving marketing messages.

Now, a new Web caching technique from AOL’s behavioral targeting unit Tacoda is designed to preserve users’ opt-out choices across the company’s network of online properties.

“One of the problems was users overwriting that unique cookie,” Jules Polonetsky, Chief Privacy Officer at AOL, told “People’s choices need to be respected, so we’re enhancing the opt-out process.”

AOL, which purchased its Tacoda unit earlier this year to better assist it in targeting ads across its sites, said it is unsure about the necessity of the privacy groups’ proposals to the FTC.

“We’re studying this proposal to see if it’s feasible,” Polonetsky said. “What’s important is consumer awareness. There is an opt-out process up and running.”

The move comes as AOL and the larger online advertising industry are facing renewed calls for increased consumer protection.

Last year, after leaking 20 million search queries, a class-action suit filed in California against AOL alleged that the company violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and a set of California fair business laws.

Online privacy advocates have also sharply criticized Google’s proposed acquisition of Web ad player DoubleClick, which is pending regulatory approval. In testimony given during Senate committee hearings on the subject, a handful of competitors and consumer advocates cautioned that the merger could have dire implications for online privacy.

The announcements also come a day before taking AOL and other online leaders are slated to take part in a two-day forum on privacy issues and tracking in online advertising, held by the FTC. The commission said the event will come as part of its effort to examine the effects of behavioral advertising on consumer privacy.

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