Notice & Disclosure in the Online World

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Welcome to Day 2 of the FTC ehavioral Advertising Town Hall. The audience has not waned in number or interest and it promises to be another day of dialogue, debate and, hopefully, increased appreciation of advertising-subsidized online content and services.
The first panel focused on Disclosures to Consumers: the ways they are currently made, how they’re being improved, and if consumers read, act on or are even aware of these notices. To be sure, devising the best mechanisms to provide both the most meaningful consumer experience as well as maintaining consumer trust is not an easy task. As was noted today by Martin Abrams, Executive Director at The Center for Information Policy Leadership, consumers just do not universally have the time to (or maybe even interest in) learn more about how their browsing behavior is being used to deliver more targeted, relevant commercial messages. 
So we may never reach all of the people all of the time with this information, no matter how transparent and verbose. Rather, he says, we need to identify the role of the privacy notice itself.  What these posted policies do is create a sense of accountability by defining how you can expect organization is going to behave and provide the mechanism against which an organization’s practices can be measured by the appropriate regulatory bodies. That’s very different than forcing consumers to read notices and police the market themselves.

Reaching Out

The good news is that, in addition to voluntarily developing these important and publicly available policies (note: there currently is no regulatory scheme that requires companies to post privacy policies), the trusted online media brands are continuing to experiment with new ways to give consumers the information and tools they might want in order to understand and manage their browsing and advertising preferences. Unlike the CDT-proposed government owned and operated “Do Not Track List”, this double-layered approach further supports consumers’ control of their online experiences while simultaneously supporting their continued access to the news, information and services they want.
Yesterday AOL announced a new program designed to give consumers “enhanced notice and information about behaviorally targeted advertising.” The program involves the delivery of millions of public service banner ads across the AOL third-party networks, which reach 91% of the U.S. online audience. AOL joins a growing list of leading online publishers and portals who continue to evolve their privacy policies and practices, with the latest and most noteworthy announcements being made in the last few months. 
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have all loudly announced a shortening of the period in which they’ll make anonymous search logs from its users. Google has launched a Privacy Channel on YouTube to try and reach its users by video, explaining its policies and practices by the very nature of one of the web’s most popular innovations. 
This morning, Scott Shipman, Chief Privacy Counsel at eBay, demonstrated his company’s experimentation with creating a link directly from ad content to information about that ad and how it got there. They’re testing various placements and labels that would make it easy for a consumer, if they so chose, to find out more or express their preference about advertising customization. If it’s not of interest or concern, the consumer can move on with the reason they went to the eBay site in the first place.