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European Parliament demands that Commission protect web users from advertising

The European Parliament has asked the European Commission to come up with plans to control online advertising more closely; give internet users more control of their privacy; and stop companies publishing advertising masquerading as opinion.17 Dec 2010

It has asked the Commission to introduce rules that force companies to be more up front about behavioural advertising; that give internet users rights to opt out of advertising; and that create a labelling system indicating whether sites respect users' privacy.

The Parliament adopted a Resolution on the impact of advertising on consumer behaviour in which it expressed serious reservations about the use of sophisticated technologies in advertising systems to track users' activity.

"[The Parliament] voices its concern about the routine use of behavioural advertising and the development of intrusive advertising practices (such as reading the content of e-mails, using social networks and geolocation, and retargeted advertising) which constitute attacks on consumers‘ privacy," said the Resolution.

"The development of targeted (contextual, personalised and behavioural) advertising, supposedly tailored to internet users‘ interests, constitutes a serious attack on the protection of privacy when it involves tracking individuals (through cookies, profiling and geolocation) and has not first been freely and explicitly consented to by the consumer," it said.

"The personalisation of advertising messages must not lead to the development of intrusive advertising infringing legislation on the protection of personal data and privacy," it said. "The development of new advertising practices online and via mobile devices is generating a range of problems that need dealing with in order to safeguard a high level of protection for users."

The Parliament said that the European Commission must ensure that rules already in place at EU level are implemented and enforced by countries.

"[The Parliament] calls on the Commission to update, clarify and strengthen its guidelines on the implementation of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive on a very regular basis and ensure that they are translated into the EU's official languages, and calls on the Member States to take those guidelines into account as far as possible," it said.

"[It] calls on the Commission and the Member States to evaluate the implementation of national codes of conduct relating to the media and new information and communication technologies [and] calls on the Member States to assess the effectiveness of national self-regulatory bodies," it said.

The Parliament expressed particular disquiet about 'astro-turfing', the false creation of seemingly grass roots support for products or causes. Advertisements contained in comments and reviews on websites or on social networking sites will be misleading if not badged correctly, it said.

"In view of a degree of consumer fatigue at the proliferation of advertising messages there is a temptation today to use the new communications technologies to disseminate commercial messages even when they are not clearly designated as such and are thus likely to mislead consumers," it said.

"[The Parliament] denounces the development of ‘hidden’ internet advertising that is not covered by the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (consumer-to-consumer relationships), in the form of comments posted on social networks, forums and blogs, the content of which is difficult to distinguish from mere opinion," it said.

"[It] considers indeed that there is a risk that consumers will make wrong decisions in the belief that the information on which they are based stems from an objective source," it said. "[It] calls on the Commission and the Member States to ensure proper application of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive in this regard."

The Parliament also said that the Commission should ensure that recipients of advertising material should be able to reject all future material at the click of a mouse. It said the Commission should "require as soon as possible advertisements sent by e-mail to contain an automatic link enabling the recipient to refuse all further advertising".

The Commission should also "develop an EU website labelling system, modelled on the European Privacy Seal, certifying a site's compliance with data protection laws," said the Resolution.