Compliance Management, Incident Response, Network Security, Privacy, TDR

Google’s interest-based advertising sparks privacy debate

Google on Wednesday launched an “interest-based” advertising service, sparking a larger discussion among privacy-advocacy groups over data collection concerns.

Based on the type of websites users visit, Google will place users into interest categories -- such as sports, cars and cats -- and serve ads related to these categories, Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel at Google, told Thursday. Users will have the option of modifying the interest categories they fall into or “opt-out” by downloading a browser plug-in, which permanently stores the user's preference for opting out of interest-based ads.

Companies including Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft have been using interest-based advertising for up to 10 years, Wong said. But, typically, there has been a lack of transparency and choice for users -- which Google has worked to mitigate in developing its own program.

Google's service is expected to gradually be rolled out this year, and users will start seeing a link that says, "Ads by Google" on every ad in the network, which will take them to a page with information about the ad network Wong said.

Google's move to interest-based advertising has given rise to a broader privacy discussion -- with questions about the practice that have not yet been answered.

“There are positive and negative aspects to the way Google has gone about this,” Alissa Cooper, chief computer scientist at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), told Thursday.

Cooper said that allowing users to view and modify their interest profile lends transparency and is something that the CDT is supportive of and has advocated for other companies.

“We have heard from other companies that it's too hard to do,” Cooper said. “Google disproved that.”

On the other hand, Conley said that though Google's method of opting-out, which requires a browser plug-in to make the cookie permanent (or else a user would be put back into interest-based advertising every time they cleared their cookies) is a technical fix for a problem that other companies have had trouble solving, it's not a fix for the industry as a whole. It could become a hassle for users if they had to download and install a new plug-in for every interest-based advertising company they want to opt-out of.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published a document containing guidelines for online behavioral advertising. Among its principles, the FTC said that transparency and consumer control should be provided when data on consumers is being collected.

The FTC's document is meant to serve as guidance; Cooper said it is unclear whether the agency will request that Congress write law around data collection and online behavioral advertising.

“These [principles] are not laws by themselves, but if industry ignores them it will do so at its own peril,” Peder MaGee, senior staff attorney at the FTC told Thursday.

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research organization, told Thursday said this area should be federally regulated.

“It's important to have rules and regulations across the board for companies that engage in data collection,” Coney said.

She said users should have full disclosure about what data is being collected and how it is going to be used -- especially if the information is personally identifiable (PII).

Coney said a cause for concern is that details about Google's data collection practices are not completely transparent.

“They just don't disclose how they use the information that comes into their hands, how much information is collected, how it's collected,” Coney said. “Their privacy policy isn't clear when the information is collected and how it's mapped to the user.”

Coney said data collection is concerning because it could enable a company to build profiles on consumers, complete with likes and dislikes in movies, books and music; demographic information such as age, gender, and race; profession, information on where they travel, what they buy, and more.

Wong said Google does not collect PII or use IP addresses or search queries as part of developing user interest categories. Instead, they are based on cookies from websites the user visited that are in Google's ad network.

One of Coney's concerns over interest-based advertising is that since consumer data is being collected and not everyone will see the same ads, there's the potential for users to be offered different prices for goods and services based on their perceived ability to pay.

“If they can pay more, they might be asked to pay more,” Coney said.

Wong said the FTC prohibits those kind of advertising practices.

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