The Ad-Tracking Debate: Where Should Disclosure Live?

More Options Are Better for Consumers -- and Marketers

By Published on .

Jim Brock
Jim Brock
On the question of how to reconcile behavioral targeting and privacy, we now have definitive proposals from each end of the spectrum. In July, the advertising industry delivered its Self-Regulatory Principles (urging industry efforts instead of legislation). Then last week a coalition of privacy advocates delivered its Legislative Primer (calling for a broad set of laws). The stage is set for conflict as Congress digs in.

Industry and advocacy groups do seem to agree that enhanced disclosure of behavioral tracking is necessary, which means consumers should be better able to identify of the companies collecting data, easily find their privacy practices and policies, and have a meaningful chance to opt-out.

But it's still not clear how web users will find that disclosure online. This question goes to the core of how new rules will affect a consumer's daily experience: Should advertisers be required to embed privacy disclosures inside or right next to the advertisements themselves (as the legislating group contends)? Or can websites provide a link to comprehensive disclosures about all of the networks collecting information on a page or throughout a site (which could suffice for the self-regulators).

For consumers the best answer is to require both.

Disclosure in the advertisement has obvious appeal. Why not associate tracking activity as directly as possible with the tracker's ad? Consumers spooked by a particular ad would know just where to go to find out more and make choices.

Yet "in-ad" disclosure -- with nothing else -- also puts a burden on the consumer, who (ironically) must now look even more closely at ads to stay informed about their privacy. How many in-ad disclosure links would you need to click on to get a full picture of what's happening on a single page? How about an entire site? What if, instead of being spooked by a particular ad, you're generally interested in all of the privacy disclosures and choices for networks touching your favorite site or the page you're viewing?

The effectiveness of in-ad disclosure also has practical challenges. What's the layout when more than one tracking party collects data with a single advertisement, such as an ad network and an individual advertiser? What about trackers who capture IP addresses or write cookies without presenting any ad? What do you do about the growing crop of companies who work behind the scenes to aggregate targeted audiences, but are not directly in the ad-serving chain?

A more perfect (and not much harder) solution would put links to disclosure both in the ads and on the page or site. As proposed by industry groups, there should be a recurring icon in or around ads that consumers can come to associate with tracking and learning about why any particular targeted ad was served to them.

But if consumers want to look into their privacy options on that site more generally, a link on every page should take them to one place with all of the privacy information they need. Composition of those summaries can be automated based on sampling pages on the site, as you can see in the Network Privacy Profile for Let websites, industry groups and privacy advocates experiment and innovate on this kind of presentation, with feedback from consumers.

Websites have much to gain from behavioral targeting, so it makes sense for them to participate in enhanced disclosure. With that kind of participation, interest-driven marketing can work for all concerned: websites, advertisers, networks and informed consumers.

Jim Brock is founder of privacychoice, an independent group devoted to making consumer privacy choices understandable and actionable. Jim is a serial technology entrepreneur, former Yahoo executive and co-founder of Attributor.
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