10 Apr Behavioural targeting at the European Consumer Summit
8 April, 2009
The European Commission Directorate – General for Health & Consumers organized the European Consumer Summit on “Consumer Trust in the Digital Market Place” held in Brussels on 1 and 2 April, 2009. The agenda featured policy workshops on ‘Consumer challenges and opportunities in the digital world’ and ‘Consumer advocacy’. Within the first topic, the whole range of consumer concerns in the digital market place considered to be major obstacles to the full take-off of business to consumer e-commerce and possible solutions to create consumer trust were discussed. Thematically, the topic of consumer data collection, profiling and targeting was arching out pointing the heavy reliance on personal information in the digital environment; something which captured policy makers’ attention in Europe fairly recently.
In a preceding ‘Roundtable on Online Data Collection, Targeting and Profiling’ hosted by the Directorate-General for Health & Consumers on 31 March experts and stakeholders’ input had been generated in order to feed back into the main event. In her key note speech Commissioner Meglena Kuvena observed that “personal data is the new oil of the Internet and the currency of the digital world” – a reality to be accepted in exchange for free content online. However, well established consumer protection principles, including the applicable data protection regulations, are not fully complied with in the “World Wide Web (…) turning out to be the world ‘wild west’.”
In order to reassert the confidence of the users and consumers, Mrs. Kuneva sees privacy policies as the key to implement fairness and transparency standards as well as meaningful consumer control. Her message to the participants of the roundtable showed determination to enforce existing regulation on the Internet and to regulate where adequate response to consumer concerns on the issue of data collection and profiling is missing.
The roundtable proceeded with contributions from industry, lobbies and consumer organizations as well as academics discussing the data collection practices and business models as well as risks and opportunities for consumers. The business model to (co)finance content and free services with online advertisement that incorporates to a varying degree targeted information and personal data is certainly pervasive also beyond gratis offers. It is important however to tell apart the numerous online advertising practices and assess whether and to what extent personal information of users is involved. Companies and industry associations favour good practice principles and self-regulation, and, inevitably, see consumer control implemented with the opt-out mechanism. According to this spectrum, users are empowered individually to control the use of their personal information and collectively through the lever of brand value that would caution companies. Critical interventions raised the need for special protection of sensitive segments such as children and sensitive personal data, a state of fairness in privacy policies and consent generation, and the problem of multi-layered and networked data collection, leaving the user largely unaware of who controls which personal information. Consumer education about online advertising and the meaning of privacy policies and consent emerged as a consensus from the discussion.
Member of European Parliament Stavros Lambrinidis, rapporteur of the recent report on strengthening security and fundamental freedoms on the Internet, stressed the necessity to prescribe limits to the ‘consent’ that can be obtained from users regarding the processing of their personal data in the digital marketplace. As reflected in his report, the imbalance of negotiating power and knowledge between individual users and data processing industry and authorities bears the risk that “Big Brother” will come stealthily and with our “consent”.
In the progress of the European Consumer Summit behavioral advertisement and its consumer policy implications were prominently raised and wrapped up, asking for:
a. the evaluation of different online advertising practices,
b. ways to improve consumer control and information,
c. the role and robustness of standards and best practices, and
d. how the fairness concept can be best transposed from offline to online.
In order to keep a channel for discussion open, the Directorate-General for Health & Consumers proposed to set up a privacy blog on its webpage and invited comments. The way forward was not specified and is further complicated by the fact that online consumer data protection is situated at the intersection of the tasks of theree Directorates – General: Health and Consumers, Freedom Security and Justice, and Information Society and Media.
In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) examined online behavioral advertisement to some length and published in February 2009 a Staff Report on Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising.