A question around the collection of user data online …

I think the area of data collection around Internet users browsing habits is an interesting one.

The EU have been investigating it for some time – in regards to Behavioural Targeting and user profiling and possible uses of this – and the US IAB are also actively lobbying the US government around the issue.

Paid Content article on the US situation presently – http://www.paidcontent.org/entry/419-online-ad-business-adds-300-billion-to-u.s.-economy-so-dont-mess-with-i/

EU paper here – http://info.wfa.be/OnlineDataCollection_Backgroundpaper.doc

The EU paper is an interesting read as it outlines some uses of targeting many of us probably haven’t immediately thought of.

My feeling is if data collation is anonymous (and more about the ‘what’ then the ‘who’) and used to create more relevant advertising messages or present users with more relevant content then it is a positive thing.

It’s when it’s misused, like anything, that it becomes a problem.

One area of discussion is what % of users are aware about the data that is potentially being collected around their habits online. Most data collection has an opt-out policy … ie, they will collect info unless you explicitily disagree. Sure, you can delete cookies etc but how many people do this and do it due to privacy concerns and not just habit or becasue someone has said it’ll quicken their online experience?

Would it be feasible to move to an opt-in approach? That the adservers/publishers etc could only profile you and acquire information of you allowed them to and switched it on? On top of this, privacy policies were clearer, more prominent and not written in legal blah that most humans don’t like reading?

I’m not sure. Personally as a user it doesn’t bother me right now, and as an advertising industry type guy I think targeting offers benefits to both consumer and advertiser as it can increase relevance and remove waste.

But surely the debate will become more topical over time as curiosity builds and more people join the chatter.

If anyone knows what is being done locally by the IAB or AIMIA it’d be great to find out. For the ad industry surely self regulation would be a better outcome than it becoming the realm of govt. bureaucrats?


2 responses to “A question around the collection of user data online …

  1. Timely post – most people have no idea how much they are being looked at. Aussies seem much less concerned than UK where a real paranoia has developed.

    Phorm is currently the subject of much debate in the UK where they ran a trial to track habits of a number of British Telecom customers without telling the users.


    BT have now changed their broadband terms & conditions so anyone can be monitored in future.

    This kind of targetting could have some interesting side effects. Lets take a possible but unpleasant example: Teenage son looks up some porn when Mum and Dad are out – establishing a certain kind of behaviour. He clears the history on the browser. But Phorm and other systems go beyond this so it doesnt have any effect on them. What kind of adverts will Mum and Dad be presented with when they use the PC later that day?

  2. Hi Ben, very good summary of the current situation.

    To answer your last question first, the IAB are managing the industry side through its standards council and AIMIA is keeping an eye on the regulatory/policy side through, um, me.

    In Australia this is an issue that has popped up every few years going back to the late 1990’s when the ad serving companies first started promoting behavioural targeting. While the ad industry ignored the technology for a while, the privacy and civil liberties didn’t so there have been a number of government investigations.

    What normally takes the hot air out of it is the the fact that to date there’s been no personally identifiable (PI) info being tracked. As you say, it’s the “what” not the “who”.

    What’s causing the ruckus overseas is that, as well as Aussies seeming a bit more relaxed about it from a consumer perspective, as Julian says, things like Phorm and various announcements in the press about people wanting to mix PI info with individual consumer preferences with the ad serving. Without a very explicit uber-opt in process for consumers it’s going to be a big no-no here, the privacy people will be all over it unless it’s squeaky clean (I have noted an Aussie myspace mobile ad announcement today but haven’t looked at it in any detail yet).

    If major concerns do arise from the go0vernment, my experience is that all sorts of industry bodies will jump in, not just AIMIA and the IAB. ADMA will have a lot to say because of the SPAM act, likewise the IIAbecause the government response is “let’s ban cookies” and cookies have uses that go far beyond advertising. Every time some newspaper lift out tells consumers to delete cookies, ISP call centres go into melt-down with all their customers ringing up to complain that the internet doesn’t work properly any more. ISP’s hate this so their industry body the IIA is a very active in monitoring it.

    So I agree that it’s a very interesting area and one to watch very carefully. And we are watcvhing it very, very carefully.


    John Butterworth

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