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Privacy & Data

Google’s Move Into Behavioral Targeting

After several years of saying that it doesn’t target ads based on profiles of users, Google took a giant step into behavioral targeting by beginning to target ads on its AdSense network (although not on search or display advertising… but that only seems to be a matter of time at this point). On the whole, the move raises concerns for privacy advocates. Industry has long promised improved self-regulation, but has only delivered on dribs and drabs of improvements. Until the whole process becomes more transparent to the consumer, as well as easier to understand, users are going to continue to be confused and wary of a business model that tracks their online usage. The modest good news here is that Google will provide access to the profiles they build and allow users to edit them. While the idea of allowing users to participate in services delivered to them probably seems like common sense to most social networking users, advertising networks have been fiercely opposed to offering transparency in the categories that they use for targeting. Why? Because most of these companies don’t think that users really know what they want. Google at least has enough decency to offer those that they track — the people who earn the company its profits by clicking on ads — the ability to tell Google if it’s doing a good job. This should be the industry standard. The bad news is that in Google’s program, as with most others, finding these controls and the opt-out provision offered is still difficult. Google will be labeling its ads with an "Ads by Google" link to these items, but it’s not clear that "Ads by Google" is the signal that consumers are looking for. Furthermore, the opt-out is based on a failed premise. The truth of the matter is that the industry needs to work together to move beyond the discredited cookie opt-out model. Annie Anton and Peter Swire wrote some comments to the FTC not long ago explaining this problem in depth. Google claims to have improved upon the old model by creating a plug-in for users to keep their opt-out cookie while deleting the rest of their cookies. While as a technical matter that may be true, without an industry-wide solution these plug-in options just serve to confuse users about what they need to do to protect themselves. If this plug-in approach catches on, will users need to download a plug-in from every network advertiser and every analytics company to stop the tracking? That model just isn’t sustainable. CDT had hoped that by the time a major announcement like this was made, the industry would be further along in developing solutions (policy and technical) that could work across the industry. Unfortunately, that has not happened.