Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Do Consumers Care About Web Privacy?

NEW YORK ( -- Freaking out about the easier opt-outs proposed by some online-privacy advocates? Maybe you don't have so much to worry about.
In June, Fetchback, an advertising network that specializes in ad "retargeting," added a link within its ad units that, when clicked, took consumers to a page that explained who the advertiser was and how the ad got there and gave contact info for Fetchback, as well as a way to opt out of future targeting.
When Fetchback compared the rate at which people opted out before it added the link and after, it found that it actually went down slightly.
It's early data and a limited sample -- two weeks' worth, both before and after -- but it shows that fears that consumers will choose to eschew web targeting en masse are perhaps overblown. In a small number of instances, adding the link actually resulted in messages from consumers who wanted to know more about the advertiser or offer the ad was promoting, and it also generated a few new business queries for Fetchback.
"You're so focused on [the potential downside] you don't actually think about how it opens communication," said Fetchback CEO Chad Little. "Consumers don't know how easily to get in touch with the person delivering the ad because they don't know who's delivering it."
Similar to Fetchback, Google also affixes an "About This Ad" label on many of its AdSense ads, which leads to a page with privacy information and an opt-out option. The firm didn't specify how many of its customers had chosen to opt out.
Not the endIt's not hard to see why those who traffic in online advertising worry. In the ongoing debate surrounding privacy and online advertising, one of the persistent fears is that making it easier for people to opt out of online data collection will be the downfall of the business -- billions of dollars gone in a flash as every consumer opts out.
And the Fetchback findings -- as well as the enhanced targeting in general -- are not likely to satisfy privacy advocates.
If anything, this might be seen as more proof that the entire concept of opting out is flawed, as consumers aren't aware of what's going on and, it could be argued, even when they are, don't particularly care enough to bother jumping through the hoops necessary to opt out.
Right now, retargeting firms and the rest of the online ad industry work in a world where targeting is the default, and consumers can choose to opt out of that. The industry, and particularly ad networks, fear a future where that default would go away and instead consumers would have to opt in to be tracked online.
The opt-in model is favored by most privacy advocates, some of whom are planning to provide Congress with a detailed proposal around the issue this week.
Easier opt-outsIdeally, the online-ad industry wants to remain self-regulated, and improving the friendliness and ease of opting out is one way to convince legislators and regulators it takes the job seriously. More than a half dozen industry organizations recently launched a new set of regulations in hopes of staving off government involvement.
Opt-out mechanisms feature prominently, but when there is no link in or around an ad unit, opting out for behavioral or cookie-based targeting typically requires users to find the privacy page of the site on which the ad appeared, which directs them to opt-out options.
That's not good enough, said Mr. Little, in a world where people want access to the info.
"We are trying to solve this problem by making privacy policies worded toward the lowest common denominator," he said. Some concerns around enhancing opt-out revolve around clients -- whether advertisers will care that there's an extra link in the ad. Mr. Little said he got very little pushback from clients and that the company had to redesign a couple of ads to accommodate the link.
Charles Curran, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative, a voluntary self-regulatory organization, said publishers need to worry less about being scared that more visible information and opt-out policies will result in an uptick of consumer's eschewing targeting, and more about the confidence the general public has in the medium.
Meanwhile, on the other end, privacy advocates argue for the strictest possible guidelines, ones that would require that consumers express explicit permission to let ad sellers track them.
One of the most outspoken privacy advocates on the issue, Jeff Chester, who heads the Center for Digital Democracy, said the Fetchback numbers sound "unscientific and self serving."

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