Privacy pirates: Self regulation is a sinking ship

Do we need a 'Do not track' law? Internet advertisers say no, but their actions says yes.

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When it comes to the online ad industry, self regulation is a bit like the Pirate’s Code in all those Johnny Depp movies: They’re really more like guidelines that can be broken whenever the script calls for it.

Bob Garfield, a blogger for Ad Age, recently offered a similar viewpoint with an Onionesque headline: “Proponents of Online Self Regulation Disadvantaged by Inability to Regulate Themselves.”

His point, essentially: Internet advertisers’ claims that they can ensure user privacy without a Federal mandate aren’t worth the paper they’re not printed on.

I think he’s right. Here’s what happens when online ad companies “self regulate.” First they band together into a quasi-coalition with an official sounding name --  like, say, the Network Advertising Initiative.

Then they all agree on a series of best practices, which translate roughly into “1. We’ll continue to keep Hoovering up all the Web sites you’re visiting and combining that with other data we’ve collected about you until you tell us not to; 2. We’re going to make it difficult for you to tell us not to; and 3. If you do manage to figure that out, we’re probably going to ignore you.”

For example, you can visit the NAI site and click the big red “Consumer Opt Out” button on its home page; this installs a cookie that tells online ad networks to not drop additional tracking cookies on your computer. That’s simple enough, provided you know enough to go looking for the button, and you do it on every browser and every machine you use, including your phone.

There are a few problems with this, and not just the fact that you may have to do this six or twelve times. One is that this Opt Out only works with big advertisers, leaving bottom feeders and small fry to do as they wish. Another is that many of the big advertisers will ignore your wishes and continue to track you anyway.

According to a preliminary report by Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, half of the NAI members the Center tested don’t remove their old tracking cookies after you opt out. Eight (or roughly 12 percent) continue to track you, regardless of their claims to the contrary. They still collect data on which sites you visit, they just stop showing you targeted ads. In other words, they keep the harm (tracking your online movements) while removing the only benefit (“more interesting” ads).

The NAI responded to the Stanford study, claiming that it was “moving the goalposts” by focusing on data collection and not on whether the sites are delivering behaviorally targeted ads. To wit:

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