FTC Chair Warns Regulation on Behavioral Advertising Imminent

by on April 28, 2009 · 30 comments

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz warned yesterday that companies involved in Web advertising face their “last chance” to “voluntarily” adopt stricter policies governing the use and collection of consumer information, Reuters reports. This isn’t the first time the FTC has threatened the advertising industry with regulation, but it signals a sense of immediacy that may pressure industry leaders to change their practices in coming weeks.leibowitz

Leibowitz presumably wants to quell widespread concern that Internet companies like Google and AT&T have “excessive control” over consumer information. But what’s excessive about using information that individuals have voluntarily handed over for marketing purposes, subject to legally enforceable rules laid out from the get-go?

Users ultimately control their data, not firms. After all, only data that users transmit can be collected. When a user visits a website, their IP address may be recorded, and when a user submits a query to a search engine, the search term can be logged. This is how the Internet has always worked.

Not all consumers understand what information is gathered about them as they browse online. The best way to protect such users is not through regulation, but by educating — and, therefore, empowering — users. Volumes have been written on privacy and data security, and the ongoing TLF series “Privacy Solutions” offers a growing body of tips on how consumers can achieve the level of privacy that suits them.

Understandably, some people are uncomfortable with their queries being logged, and would prefer that websites simply not track any data. Some sites are willing to do just that — Cuil, a search engine launched in 2008, promises to never log IP addresses or even use cookies (as Jim has noted). Other anonymity solutions rely on secure virtual tunnels that can mask users’ actual IP addresses.

Still, no matter what the FTC does, transmitting data in plaintext over the Internet will never be truly “safe.” Robust end-to-end encryption is the only surefire method of ensuring information cannot be seen by anybody except the sender and the recipient. Even then, information is only as safe to the extent that the party at the other end of the line can be trusted.

Any new FTC mandates on data collection would almost certainly impose a privacy ceiling that would offer some, if not most, people too much privacy. This may sound impossible at first, but think of people who document their every move on Twitter, open for the world to see. Different people have wildly different privacy preferences, and there is no way a single set of rules-however well-conceived-could satisfy everyone.

Privacy mandates will place shackles on the still-young Internet advertising industry, stifling promising opportunities for making money from online content. Strict rules governing data collection will deprive publishers — especially small ones — of ad revenue at a time when it is sorely needed. Rigid mandates will also prolong “dumb” Web ads by delaying the evolution of targeting technologies capable of making advertisements more relevant and, therefore, more interesting to users.

Online advertising is the lifeblood of Web content, as Berin, Adam, and others have explained time and time again. The alternative to advertiser subsidies — charging consumers for access to content — has proven relatively unpopular with consumers. Who wants to take out their credit card when all content creators pine for is a pair of eyeballs?

Advertising will fuel the growth of online content, but only if regulators let the market work.

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