How much do you want to own your privacy, and how much do you want someone else to manage it for you? That’s one of the questions raised in response to a report released yesterday by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding online behavioral targeting by advertisers. Notice how when you do a search for something like “phone” you get a string of ads for long-distance providers, mobile phones and the like? That is (or, as we’ll see, used to be) a basic example of online behavioral targeting. Advertisers send you ads based on what you like, and at a higher level, advertisers are tracking you as you surf the Internet, storing your data and sending you ads based on your overall habits. Privacy advocates find this to be a violation, but many advertisers claim they’re just trying to reach their target audience and monetize the Internet in an era where print ads seem to be less and less valuable.
In 2007, the FTC issued a set of guidelines that advertisers should give surfers the chance to opt out of having their data tracked by advertisers. Again, these were just guidelines, and not legally binding, thus empowering advertisers to regulate themselves, and in turn putting the onus on consumers. The report yesterday was a review of these guidelines, and mostly redefined the terms of what is considered behavioral advertising (for example, serving up an ad based on one search term is no longer considered behavioral advertising). However, it did nothing to address the issue of self-regulation, which, in the wake of the report, seems to be the thing most advocacy groups wanted the report to discuss. So really, not much has changed. Self-regulation can continue to remain at the bottom of an advertiser’s priority list, if that’s where they want it.
Should the FTC have a heavier hand in regulating advertisers and behavioral advertising, or should we, as consumers, take responsibility for what we do and don’t want to see? Some argue that if the FTC did more regulating, it could squelch an industry which is constantly moving and thrives on innovation. I see that point, and I understand that advertising is an important part of new media. However, I also think that nobody but me should be responsible for my media choices, and we all should know our rights as consumers. Right now, opt-out information is usually buried in fine print, demonstrating that advertisers still know the meaning of subtlety. I should be given the option of whether or not I want to be bombarded by ads when I’m just trying to search for directions online, and I think advertisers should have to give me that right and let me know my choices, loud and clear. The power to surf ad-free? Now, THAT’S innovation.