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US advertisers commit to developing targeted ad control tools for browsers

US internet users will be able to opt out of being tracked for online behavioural advertising (OBA) purposes via their browser settings after an advertising industry body committed to recognising privacy choices made in this way.24 Feb 2012

The Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), which comprises four marketing bodies including the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) and Direct Marketing Association, said it "expects" users will be able to control OBA tracking from their browser settings "within nine months". The DAA said it represents over 90% of companies advertising to US consumers on the internet.

"Today the DAA announced that it will immediately begin work to add browser based header signals to the set of tools by which consumers can express their preferences under the DAA Principles," the DAA said in a statement.

"The DAA standard and corresponding enforcement of the standard will be applied where a consumer: has been provided language that describes to consumers the effect of exercising such choice including that some data may still be collected and has affirmatively chosen to exercise a uniform choice with the browser based tool. The DAA standard will not apply in instances where [both those requirements] do not occur or where any entity or software or technology provider other than the user exercises such a choice," it said.

"In addition to this commitment, the DAA intends to begin work immediately with browser providers to develop the consistent language across browsers regarding the browser based header signal uniform consumer choice mechanism that is simple to use and in a clear manner that describes to consumers the effect of exercising such choice," the ad industry body said.

In 2010, the DAA published a self-regulatory code on OBA requiring advertisers and website operators signed up to the scheme to provide internet users with certain information about the personalisation of ad content. One of the rules of the code requires OBA companies to post an interactive icon that indicates that ads have been served through personalised targeting. The icon links through to a website that contains information on how data collected from individuals is used to serve personalised ads. The website also enables users to manage controls over what data individual operators can collect about them. Now the same control "functionality" is being worked on within browser settings, the DAA said.

Publishers and advertising networks use cookies to track user behaviour on websites in order to target adverts to individuals based on that behaviour. A cookie is a small text file that remembers a user's activity on a site. Companies use cookies to track user activity and build up a picture of that person's interests, so that they can try to publish advertising towards goods and services they think the person will respond to.

Last year IAB Europe issued guidelines on what website operators signed up to the voluntary OBA framework should do to comply with the rules. Posting an interactive icon, complete with accompanying explanatory language, is just one of the rules set out in the code.

Website operators must also give users access to any easy method for turning off cookie tracking on their own site, and must make it known to users that they collect data on them for behavioural advertising, the regulations stipulate. Websites adhering to the regulations also have to publish details of how they collect and use data, including whether personal or sensitive personal data is involved.

Details of which advertisers or groups of advertisers they make the data available to also have to be published.

In a separate initiative internet companies have been working alongside the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) on a set mechanism for enabling users to opt out of being tracked across the internet. W3C is responsible for ensuring that web technology is based on an agreed set of technical standards.

Work on that project remains ongoing and aims to establish a 'do not track' standard that would prevent web companies tracking users in order to serve personalised content as well as targeted ads.

However, the new DAA-backed 'do not track' initiative will only apply to tracking for OBA purposes.

Google said that it will not affect its ability to track users in order to deliver other personalised content.

"Users will be able to exercise choice under the DAA Principles by setting what has been called a 'do not track' header straight from their browser. The DAA Principles, and therefore the header, cover some aspects of tailored advertising. But, for example, if users have requested personalization (such as by signing up for particular services) or visit websites that use 'first party' cookies to personalize the overall experience (for example a news website recommending articles to its readers, or a video site remembering your volume preferences), then browsers will not break that experience," Susan Wojcicki, senior vice president in advertising at Google, said in a blog

Despite its limited scope the DAA-backed 'do not track' initiative was praised by US consumer protection regulator the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

"Up until now, the advertising industry and the browser vendors have operated on parallel but separate tracks. But today, with the advertising industry announcing that it will honor consumer choices about tracking made through web browser settings, the two initiatives are beginning to come together. As a result, consumers will be able to opt out of tracking through either the icon on advertisements they see or through their browser settings, and America will move further down the road to protecting consumer privacy," Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, said in a speech (3-page / 73KB PDF).

"While these developments are encouraging, we still need to ensure that all companies that track users – not just advertisers – are at the table. To that end, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) ... gathered engineers, consumer groups, and participants across the broad technology industry to create a universal standard for do not track. We look forward to their deliberations also bearing fruit over the coming year," he said.

Leibowitz said he thinks technology will eventually allow users to "clear their cookies or update their browser" without having to reset their 'do not track' preferences.