The battle over digital privacy and the removal of unwanted online ads

You know those annoying ads that you get when you’re browsing the net? Wouldn’t it be great if you could opt out, so that your internet experience was unencumbered by interruptions? Unfortunately, most internet browsers make it deliberately difficult to do so.

Here is an example of what happens when you try to make use of the option to opt out of receiving unsolicited adverts.  

Consider this experience from December 2011. You visit a Yahoo! sports page and see an

ad from Target stores that has the advertising option icon on its top right corner. You might

not notice the icon: on Yahoo!, for example, it is a tiny gray drawing next to the word

“AdChoices,” also in gray. But say you do, and you click to learn more. Clicking on the icon

next to an ad promoting “One Odd Trick to Stay Asleep at Night” in late 2011 leads to a page

served by Yahoo! (not Evidon or TrustE, in this case) that, confusingly, has nothing to do

with the ad. It is a Yahoo! Privacy page titled “AdChoices: Learn More About This Ad”

(Yahoo! 2011). The page is divided into two parts, one “for consumers” and the other “for

advertisers and publishers.” The consumer-oriented part presents a preamble about how

“The Web sites you visit work with online advertising companies to provide you with advertising

that is as relevant and useful as possible.” It then has three major bullets: who placed this ad?

(The answer: Yahoo!) Where can I learn more about how Yahoo! selects ads? (The answer:

a link to a page about Yahoo!’s “privacy and advertising practices.”) What choices do I

have—about interest-based advertising from Yahoo!? (The answer: a link to see the “interestbased

categories” Yahoo! uses to serve you ads as well as to add to the list or opt out.) Click

on the link to the choices, and you may see that Yahoo! has tagged you in a few, or several,

from among hundreds of interest categories.

Yahoo! is following the rules, and the rules say that it does not have to give detailed explanations

about data mining or tracking right after you click on the icon. What Yahoo! actually

says may sounds quite innocuous, so a person might not find it worth the time to take additional

action. Let us assume, though, that you decide to opt out of the company tracking you.

You find a lot of language on the page and successive links that try to dissuade you. A prominent

“Learn More!” notice on the AdChoices web page exhorts you to follow a link to “Find

out how online advertising supports the free content, products, and services you use online.”

Another link takes you to the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), which tells visitors at

the top that allowing cookies is “a way to support the websites and products you care about.”

Say you still want to stop Yahoo! from tracking you. As it turns out, you cannot do it. The

only thing that you can do is link to a part of the NAI site, where you can tell that company

and others that you do not want to receive their online behavioral ads. The company can still

track you with a cookie so that it can use what it learns about you in statistical analyses of web

users. The rules do not allow you to tell it to stop doing that. In fact, when you go to the

opt-out area (NAI 2011), the site cautions you that your action to stop the firm’s targeted ads

will not enable you to stop receiving advertising; it will simply result in ads that are not

relevant to your interests. In view of the limitations—that you will be continue to be tracked

and have irrelevant ads sent to you—why would many people click to opt out?

That, of course, is exactly what the Internet advertising industry hopes will happen. Advocacy

groups voiced indignation that an individual’s opting out via the icon meant only opting out

from being served “relevant” ads, not from being tracked and having data stored about them. The

FTC responded with a report in early 2012 that exhorted the industry to work toward genuine

options such as providing do-not-track instructions in browsers as well as through websites (Vega

and Wyatt 2012). As of late April 2012, though, the Alliance had not accepted browser technologies

that would allow do-not-track. Moreover, a click on an advertising icon next to a Ford ad

on Yahoo!’s website led to an Evidon site with the same disclaimers seen in December 2011.

(Extracted from Self regulation and the construction of media harms – Joseph Turow)







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