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Groups fight browser tracking

Coalition asks the FTC to protect Web surfers from prying advertisers.

November 01, 2007|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

First there was "Do Not Call." Now, if a coalition of privacy groups gets its way, there might be the Internet equivalent: "Do Not Track."

The coalition asked the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday to make it easier for people to prevent advertisers from tracking their Web surfing through what's known as behavioral targeting.

"This is something that is being done secretly -- people don't know it is going on," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, based in San Diego. "Consumers are without really knowing providing a very detailed picture of their lifestyles, spending habits and interests."

The coalition, which includes the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the World Privacy Forum and the Center for Democracy and Technology, made its request in advance of an FTC workshop on behavioral targeting planned for today and Friday.

Behavioral targeting programs collect data about someone's Web-browsing activities, such as sites visited or searches made, often storing text strings called cookies on the person's personal computer or browser. Companies use the information to tailor online ads to fit a person's tastes and purchasing habits.

The practice has come under increasing scrutiny as advertisers and Internet portals have put more and more money into it. Google Inc. in April announced plans to acquire DoubleClick Inc., which places and tracks online ads, for $3.1 billion, and AOL in July spent more than $200 million for ad-tracking firm Tacoda Inc.

AOL said Wednesday that it was moving to reassure its customers, launching a campaign to teach people how to opt out of behavioral targeting and placing banner ads on its site explaining its policy.

"If users don't know how their information is being used, it creates mistrust and concern," said Jules Polonetsky, AOL's chief privacy officer.

Consumer advocates said the AOL plan didn't amount to much, considering that people have for years been able to avoid targeted advertising from many marketers by logging on to www.networkadvertising.org, the website for the Network Advertising Initiative, or by visiting the websites of the companies that track consumers' surfing habits.

Most people, though, have no idea how to opt out, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication and UC Berkeley's Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic found that a majority of Americans assumed any information about their Internet surfing was protected by a website's privacy policy, and when they were told that wasn't the case, they didn't like it.

"We have a 'Do Not Call' list that is easy and simple. Why can't we have something easy and simple here?" Dixon said.

Behavioral targeting can lead to price discrimination, she and others said, allowing advertisers to offer, for example, higher-interest loans to low-income consumers. It can also mean that someone researching a certain medical condition online will be bombarded with ads about the condition long after he or she is no longer interested in it.

But Ian Schafer, chief executive of interactive marketing agency Deep Focus, says that kind of targeting can improve a consumer's Internet experience. Behavioral targeting allows Deep Focus, which conducts campaigns for entertainment companies, to market comedy films to people who have looked for them online, and prevents the agency from showing ads for a chick flick to someone interested in action films.

"If I'm going to see advertising, I'd rather see advertising that is more relevant to me," Schafer said.

If ads become less effective online, marketers might not want to keep spending money on them, he said, and the model of free content on the Internet might break down.

People have said in surveys that they would rather see ads than pay to use the Internet, said David Doty, senior vice president of marketing at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group.

"There's no reason to institute something new," Doty said. "All of these protections already exist."

Behaviorally targeted online advertising spending totaled $350 million in 2006 and will rise to $3.8 billion in 2011, according to research firm EMarketer Inc.

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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Q&A

How can I prevent myself from being tracked?

The easiest way to opt out of targeted advertising is to visit the Network Advertising Initiative site, www.network, and click on the "Consumer Opt-Out" option.

What does this tool do?

The tool allows consumers to choose not to receive targeted advertising from networks including DoubleClick, 24/7 Real Media and Advertising.com. It places an opt-out cookie on your browser to remember your preference. The ads you will receive after opting out will be general in nature and, according to the Network Advertising Initiative, could be repetitive. But not all tracking is done by cookies, so you could continue to receive some targeted advertising.

What doesn't it do?

The service doesn't prevent you from receiving ads. It just prevents many companies from sending you ads based on sites you have visited or searches you have entered on the computer.

Source: Times research

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