NEWS5 June 2009

Control is key to consumer concerns over ad targeting

Government North America Privacy

US— Research by graduate students at UC Berkeley’s School of Information suggests that critics of online tracking and ad targeting could be silenced by giving consumers more control over how their data is collected and used.

The researchers analysed online tracking systems and privacy policies, reviewed existing consumer surveys on the issue, and obtained copies of complaints made about behavioural tracking to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

An analysis of the complaints found that nearly 40% related to user control – knowing and understanding how they are being tracked, and having the opportunity to opt out.

In a report published this week, the researchers write: “While the FTC has framed online privacy in terms of ‘harm’, consumers’ complaints focus on lack of control over personal information.”

“Users want the ability to edit and delete information about them as well as to determine who can have access to certain types of information,” they argue. “Consumer complaints demonstrated great discomfort with the ability of data broker portals to sell data to anyone, meaning that in reality, no one is in control of the data.”

The group say that while most of the internet’s top 50 websites collect information about users for customised advertising, few of them provide a clear statement about how users’ data might be retained, bought, sold or passed on in future.

They recommend that:

  • website owners disclose to users how their data is used and with whom it is shared
  • users be allowed to choose whether websites can share their data with corporate affiliates
  • browser developers provide functionality to make users aware of when they are being tracked
  • links to the FTC’s online complaint form are included in privacy policies
  • website piracy policies be written in a clearer and “more readable” form.

Meanwhile privacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken the matter into its own hands, creating a site to track the the terms of service of 44 popular websites, providing updates within an hour of any change. Tim Jones of EFF said terms of service policies “form the foundation of your relationship with almost any site you visit, but almost no one really has time or the legal background to read them”. The new site aims to make the public more aware of user agreements and what they mean, he said.