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Publishers Respond as Online Consumer Data Privacy Concerns Arise

How publishers are navigating a new FTC proposal about online consumer data.



By Esther D'Amico
02/24/2011

Many of the tech-savvy subscribers to Technology Review online know all about behavioral tracking cookies and either delete them manually or hit TR's privacy page and opt out. There are also those that ignore them. None of these actions surprise TR, which designed its privacy policy to give readers better control over who sees their surfing habits and why.

"We are very clear in our privacy policy. We will cookie; we track behavior; we allow them to do one-click opt-outs," says Heather Perry Holmes, senior vice president of audience development at TR. "A lot of what drives us is that we put ourselves in the customer's shoes."

That philosophy is in line with the Federal Trade Commission's recent proposal to improve consumer online data protection with a universal do-not-track mechanism for data collection and tracking by third parties. FTC states that some Internet users are against the collection and sharing of their information, while some have no idea that it is taking place and others, who are aware, see it as a trade-off for desirable products or services.

The agency says it has provided a framework for policymakers, including Congress, which has been grappling with the issue. This month [February] alone at least three bills have been introduced in the House involving increased consumer data privacy protection including opt-in or opt-out provisions.

The increased attention is spurring the business community at large to step up self-regulation efforts, analysts say. Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla have each recently announced tracking protection for their respective Web browsers. But critics argue that the new browser options are only as good as the Web sites that choose to honor them. They say the number of bad actors on the Web has not diminished, which makes even the good actors look bad.

Dennis Dayman, chief privacy officer at Eloqua, which focuses on collecting and analyzing data for businesses, embraces what he calls "hypertransparency" for anyone conducting business on the Web. He says it is in every business's best interest to provide end users with notice, consent and choice.

End users should be "told in plain English and in non-legal terms what's going to happen to their data and how you are going to use it," Dayman says. They should know that by filling out a form, for example, they will receive an e-mail.

Sal Tripi, senior director of operations and compliance at Publishers Clearing House, says consumer data privacy protection should be a concern for anyone that does business online. However, "the bigger issue is that the government feels the need to add regulation because consumers have concerns," he says.

Given the enormous amount of content on the Web that is funded by advertisers, "the absence of effective advertising will, no doubt, limit what's available on the Internet," he says. "But I don't think it's an all-or-nothing scenario," providing that the business community comes together to raise data protection "to a level that consumers feel comfortable with," he says.

PCH teamed up with online privacy services firm TRUSTe last year to launch a behavioral advertising notice-and-choice pilot program on the PCHlotto.com site. Ads on the site included an "interest-based ads" icon that, when clicked, engaged a widget providing information about ads and ad networks. It also allowed users to control preferences or opt-out of online behavioral advertising (OBA).

The program, which is now being rolled out to all PCH sites, was "a smash hit" and showed that consumers have a high comfort level for OBA when they are well-informed about how it works, Tripi says. "Not many" end users opted out of the ads, he says, "and a fair amount engaged with the widget."

Parade magazine chose a different route, partnering with video advertising network AdGenesis to launch the Parade Video Rewards program in January. The program asks users to provide detailed information about interests and purchase intentions. In turn, they receive personalized and targeted branded video content and commercials.

Meanwhile, TR reviews and tweaks its privacy policy annually to make sure it is on target with business and consumer concerns, Holmes says. "We believe that our users flush the cookies frequently," she says. "But that's just the product of having a tech audience," which has not stopped returning to the site.

 

By Esther D'Amico
02/24/2011







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