- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

Most Internet users don’t realize how much of their data is collected by online advertisers, but corporations, researchers and consumer groups don’t agree what to do about it.

“The Internet could track every one of us and understand exactly what we’re doing, the Web sites we were going to, the content that we were looking at,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a D.C. consumer rights group. “Do you want a largely invisible, stealth system whose only interest in this massive analysis of information … is to get you to buy ‘x’ and ‘y’ ?”

Officials from Google Inc. and AOL LLC faced off with academics and consumer advocates yesterday at the National Press Club in a debate over the collection of search queries, visited Web sites, Internet Protocol addresses and other data companies use to target ads at consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently proposed a slate of privacy principles for online behavioral advertising that call for clear disclosure to consumers that their data is being collected and for limits on how long that data can be retained. The agency is seeking public comment on the guidelines.

FTC Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour, an independent, appearing before the panel, cited a Harris interactive poll of 2,500 adults last month that revealed 59 percent of consumers are not comfortable with Web sites using information about their online activity to tailor ads or content based on hobbies or interests. When asked whether they would feel more comfortable if the FTC’s privacy policies were adopted, 55 percent of those surveyed said they would.

Just because privacy policies exist doesn’t mean consumers read them, said Joseph Turrow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. When asked whether a Web site with a privacy policy is allowed to share information with other Web sites or companies, 75 percent of consumers in a 2005 survey did not know the answer, he said.

At Google — which leads the online advertising market after its acquisition of ad server DoubleClick Inc. — Chief Privacy Officer Jane Horvath said Google figured more consumers would watch a video than read a privacy policy, so it uses a channel on subsidiary YouTube to host several clips of engineers explaining how each of the company’s products collects user data. For example, a Google engineer explains in one video how the search giant collects a person’s search query, IP address and preferences.

“We have 13 videos and that’s where we’re trying to be as transparent as possible and let you know what we’re collecting and let you know what your choices are,” Ms. Horvath said.

AOL is similarly aiming to make its privacy information more accessible and entertaining. The company uses a penguin character in a video to explain how ads are targeted based on Web visits. Jules Polonetsky, AOL’s vice president of integrity assurance, helps maintain a company blog on the issue at PrivacyGourmet.com.

But for some, such initiatives are not enough.

“I think we do not yet understand the responsibility that falls on American business when it collects and uses personal information about American consumers and we have not properly allocated the rights and responsibilities that face consumers in this new digital environment,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Consumer education does not work for privacy.”

The panel was sponsored by the Annenberg Schools for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California.

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