What you need to know about Web ads

June 23, 2011

Opting out of online advertising based on your digital footprint — where you live, your love of cigars or that trip you booked online to the Caribbean — has been something of a secret.

But that’s changing. The Federal Trade Commission, which has been trying to draw attention to the use and abuse of so-called behavioral ads, just finalized the settlement of a case against one firm that allegedly offered consumers a chance to opt-out without mentioning they were opted back in after 10 days.

“A reasonable consumer would not expect it to expire in 10 days,” says Peder Magee, senior staff attorney with the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection.

The industry standard is a minimum of five years.

The company, Chitika Inc., responded to the initial charges by the FTC by saying the opt-out was supposed to be for 10 years not 10 days and the problem was the result of a glitch that has since been fixed.

This message now appears at the bottom of Chitika’s Web pages: “We collect information about your activities on certain websites to send you personalized advertisements. If you do not wish for us to collect this information, click here.”

Chitika says only dozens of people among the 450 million unique monthly users opted out during the time the 10-day opt-out was in place.

Which highlights perhaps the bigger problem: Hardly anyone knows they can opt-out.

“There needs to be a lot more consumer education,” Magee says.

So-called behavioral advertising (aka contextual advertising and targeted advertising) looks at the cookies collected by your Web browser and assembles a pattern of activity that hints at who you are and what you’re interested in.

While the material collected by behavioral ads isn’t always exactly right, it does involve digging into your online life and trying to figure how it can better put products and services in front of you that you’ll be more likely to buy. The advertising people make the argument that you’re better served seeing an ad you might be interested in than one that has nothing whatsoever to do with you.

While the online advertising industry is trying to set guidelines for these ads — as Congress makes moves toward taking action to reign in techno-spying — consumers ought to tune into this practice and decide for themselves whether they want a remote computer poking around in their business.

The FTC has tried to steer the industry to be more open about what it’s doing and let consumers see the choice of saying they don’t want to be part of the cookie game.

As a result, a lot of companies put a little notation about having choices or opting out in the corner of an ad. Click on one (or more) and see the deal. Here’s one that Yahoo has on its behavioral ads. Here’s another on Microsoft’s network.

The Network Advertising Initiative, an industry project, gives you the chance to opt out of a whole bunch of big advertising networks — including Microsoft and Yahoo.

The self-regulatory body, the Digital Advertising Alliance, features an icon that appears on some ads that is a triangle with a lower case “i” inside that should take you to a page where you can learn more about how that ad found you and let you opt-out.

“There needs to be consumer education that this icon even exists,” Magee said.

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