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UK could get icons on behavioural ads

UPDATED: The UK's online advertising trade body says it will be working on an icon to be displayed every time behavioural advertising is used, OUT-LAW.COM can reveal. The move would alert users to the fact that their browsing history has been used to profile them.03 Feb 2010

Trade body the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has said it will create an icon that would alert UK web users every time their web surfing is used to decide what adverts they see. Current IAB guidelines say that giving notice of behavioural tracking is optional.

Behavioural advertising is the use of cookies to track web users from site to site. Their browsing history is then used to display adverts which companies believe will be appropriate for them. Someone looking at a shoe shopping site then reading an online newspaper, for example, might be shown ads for shoes at the newspaper site.

Web users are rarely aware that they are being tracked, though, and 84% of them (27-page PDF) recently said that they objected to the activity.

Consumer protection regulator the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) launched an investigation last October into whether or not behavioural advertising breaches consumer protection laws, and a group of MPs and Lords has called for the law to change to make it illegal to engage in behavioural advertising without web users' consent.

A group of trade bodies in the US has launched a graphic that will indicate that behavioural targeting has taken place and that the advertiser adheres to a set of industry-set self-regulatory rules. That group of bodies includes the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), Association of National Advertisers (ANA), Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the Council for Better Business Bureaus (BBB), and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).

The IAB in the UK said that it is also working on a similar scheme. IAB UK's head of regulatory affairs Nick Stringer said that it would not be a part of the current US plan but is working on rolling out a global icon.

"The IAB welcomes the [US] icon as a way of offering internet users greater transparency and choice over data collection and use in providing more relevant advertising," he said. "We are working towards a global icon and believe this is in the best interests of internet users."

"The icon is currently a US initiative for the US market. The IAB will be working with our US members and with European colleagues to move towards a consistent icon for the UK and EU market," he said.

Current IAB policy is that the labelling of ads should be optional. Its guidance on behavioural advertising says that "[organisations] may provide a link alongside advertisements served to contracted partners or on their own site to information about the collection and use of data to provide OBA [online behavioural advertising] and how to decline OBA".

The US scheme is based on research conducted by Washington privacy think tank the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) which found that certain phrases were effective in attracting users' attention to behavioual ad notices.

"The two phrases that performed significantly better than others in the 2600 internet user panel were, 'Why did I get this ad?' and 'Interest based ads'. 'AdChoice', a phrase which is currently being used by eBay in its notice program, was a favourite of earlier focus group participants, particularly with less experienced internet users," said a blog posting about its results from the FPF. "Overall the notices research showed which phrases and icons were more effective than others, but it also indicated that an educational effort will be necessary to fully ensure that users comprehend behavioral advertising practices."

The announcement of the scheme said that those words would be associated with the graphic.

"Participating companies will use this wording and link/icon when engaged in online behavioural advertising to indicate their adherence to the [self-regulatory] principles and as the link that provides consumers with easily accessible disclosures about data collection and use practices associated with online behavioural advertising," it said.

Editor's note 04/02/2010: Nick Stringer has been in touch to say that we misinterpreted his comments, which we received by email. We understood that the IAB would be developing something different in the UK and across the EU. This is not the case, he says. "We think this would be counterproductive," writes Nick. "As I say, we’ll be working with US members (who have been involved in developing the icon in the US) and with EU colleagues to rollout a consistent and global icon." We apologise for the misinterpretation.

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