NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In a broad attempt by the online advertising industry to ward off federal privacy legislation, a coalition of industry groups today announced a wide-reaching program that allows internet users to opt out of being tracked for the purposes of online marketing. The program has also enlisted with the Better Business Bureau to police marketers that are not in compliance.
While some major digital advertisers, such as AT&T, have already offered a program that allows people to opt-out of being tracked, the Federal Trade Commission had expressed concern that there is not a comprehensive, single mechanism for people to unsubscribe from the legion of marketers that track their movements online.
"I think there is an interest in giving consumers who don't want to be tracked to have a single, universal opt-out device," David Vladeck, head of FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a recent interview with Ad Age. Mr. Vladeck cited that the FTC's recent suggestion of a Do Not Track list, similar to a Do Not Call list that regulates telemarketers, is not technically feasible for the moment.
"We've had ongoing dialogue with the FTC for a couple years," said Stuart P. Ingis, partner at Washington law firm Venable and counsel for the Direct Marketing Association, which is part of the coalition. Mr. Ingis said the FTC has not seen the specifics of their proposed privacy program. "We feel they're going to be delighted about this," he said.
But some consumer advocacy groups balked over the coalition's initiative, saying they weren't consulted on the new program. "It's the fox watching the corporate-run hen house," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
The online ad industry has been aggressively maneuvering to solve the issue of online privacy as part of its efforts to maintain control over its $24 billion industry. The coalition, which bills itself as the Digital Advertising Alliance, opened a registration program today where any advertiser can sign up to be included in the self-policing program. It has already reached wide adoption, Mr. Ingis said. Companies such as AT&T, as well as digital ad-buying companies such as Group M and Vivaki, have already signed on, as well as a host of advertising networks and data exchanges such as Advertising.com and BlueKai.
"We're working with our partners to ensure strong privacy protections," said Bob Quinn, chief privacy officer for AT&T. "Protecting consumers' privacy is a top priority for AT&T."
The coalition is made up of a number of trade groups. They are the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the American Advertising Federation, the Association of National Advertisers, the Direct Marketing Association and Network Advertising Initiative. Such a wide agreement between the various groups suggests they are concerned over any possible government regulation. While the FTC has not said it would regulate online marketers, such a circumstance could be a possibility if the industry doesn't successfully prove they are serving the privacy interests of online consumers.
Perhaps the key component to this initiative is its support of the Better Business Bureau, which will police any participants who are not in compliance. Technology company Better Advertising won the contract to supply the monitoring technology to the BBB. "They'll use it to keep the participants honest," said CEO Scott Meyer. "But we want to be clear we're not doing the monitoring. We just do the technology." Better Advertising will also be the initial provider to participating advertisers for the opt-out technology.
The requirements around the coalition's program may literally change the face of online advertising. Participants will be required to include an icon on the upper-right corner of any ad unit and has to be at least 12-by-12 pixels in size. The standard banner ad is 468-by-60 pixels. Clicking on the icon will reveal a rich-media enabled layer over the ad unit itself, which includes information about the ad and who is serving the ad. There will be links to various pages that will allow the user to opt-out of being tracked by that advertiser and its attendant third-party data and network partners.
Participants will be charged an annual licensing fee of $5,000 for the use of the icon, which essentially serves as a universal symbol for opting out. Third-party companies such as ad networks will have to pay a $10,000 annual fee. There is a sliding scale for smaller-sized companies. "We want it to be as inclusive as possible," Mr. Ingis said. "Ultimately, we want this to be ubiquitous."