Web Giants Mull Response to Behavioral Privacy Concerns

30 Mar Web Giants Mull Response to Behavioral Privacy Concerns

ClickZ News, By Jack Marshall, March 27, 2009

On Monday, U.K.-based digital rights organization Open Rights Group submitted an open letter to major online media players, urging them to prevent ISP-level behavioral targeting firm Phorm from tracking user interactions on their Web sites. The letter, sent to Google, AOL, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and Ebay, said, “[ORG] believes that it is clearly in your company’s interest, it is in the interests of all of your customers, and it will serve to protect your brand’s reputation, if you insist that the Phorm/Webwise system does not process any data that passes to or from your website.” “We have received the letter and are giving it careful consideration from privacy and business perspectives,” a spokesperson for AOL and its social network Bebo told ClickZ News. Similarly, in reference to the ORG correspondence, a Google spokesperson told ClickZ, “We’ve received the ORG’s letter, but we’re still considering the points they raised, so we don’t have a response to make at this time.” According to information published on the British Telecom Web site (one of Phorm’s ISP-partners,) site owners can specifically request that their properties are not “scanned” by Phorm’s technology, by contacting the firm directly. Phorm announced deals with three major U.K. ISPs over a year ago, but its technology is still yet to be fully deployed. BT has, however, carried out live trials of the platform with some of its customers. Phorm’s CEO, Kent Ertugrul, claims that BT will implement his company’s technology by the end of the year, but BT itself remains less committed to that timeline. Both AOL and Google have vested interests in the behavioral targeting space, although not in the controversial area of deep packet inspection (DPI), in which Phorm’s technology lies. AOL-owned Tacoda targets ads based on users’ activity across a range of partner sites, but does not directly intercept ISP-data. Google also announced this month that it will begin testing similar behavioral targeting technology, which it dubbed “interest-based advertising.” A U.K. parliamentary roundtable gathered earlier this month to discuss the legal and privacy implications of ad targeting, during which the panel, consisting largely of privacy advocates and networking experts, expressed views that data collection at the ISP-level is unacceptable. The panelists did not raise issues with the methodology employed by Tacoda, Google, or other “end-to-end” behavioral players, but held the view that ISPs should not be intercepting traffic for any purpose, commercial or otherwise. Robb Topolski, a software engineer who sat on the parliamentary panel summed up proceedings, stating, “For the panel, the primary position was, ‘The middle of the Internet should not be used for an electronic monitoring point.’ Certainly there are some who will want to discuss the privacy and data storage implications of ‘traditional’ behavioral advertising as performed by Google or Revenue Science or many others. That’s an important, but different debate.” At the beginning of the month, the IAB U.K. launched a good practice guide for firms that collect and use data for online advertising. Google, Microsoft Advertising, AOL’s Platform-A, Yahoo, Specific Media, Audience Science, NebuAd, and Phorm all signed up to the principles, which primarily address issues of user notice and consent, rather than technical matters.