How relevant is TRUSTe to behavioral targeting?

April 16, 2009

TRUSTe has established itself as the leading independent organization certifying the privacy practices of online providers. This list of companies that have obtained TRUSTe certification is indeed large, 2,400+ according to their site, and includes heavyweights like Yahoo! and Microsoft/MSN. TRUSTe certification is said to be something like the Good Housekeeping seal for consumer privacy.  In TRUSTe’s own words:

The TRUSTe seal means that the company whose Web site you are visiting takes your privacy seriously. We monitor the compliance of member businesses, provide an arena for you to file privacy violation complaints, and make sure these complaints are heard.

So, if behavioral targeting is a frontier for consumer privacy, you would expect ad networks and other BT companies to see TRUSTe certification as an important badge of honor, and also be prepared to submit to some oversight.

As it turns out, in our research on over 70 different tracking networks, far fewer than I expected have actually gone to the trouble to step up for TRUSTe certification. Among the larger players, Yahoo! and Microsoft appear to be certified by TRUSTe as to their ad network activities. Although AOL is TRUSTe certified as to the aol.com service, they maintain separate policies for their several ad networks, like advertising.com, Platform-A and Quigo, and there’s no mention of TRUSTe in those brands (other than Tacoda). Recent heavyweight entrant to behavioral targeting, Akamai, has not been certified, nor has Quantcast (which is amassing quite a footprint across its network).  (By the way, among other tracking research companies, Omniture and Coremetrics have been certified, while Nielsen appears not to be.)

And among the smaller ad network players, only a handful (including among others AudienceScience, Fetchback, Nextag, RealMedia.com and Media6degrees) are TRUSTe certified. Notable uncertified small players:  BlueKai, Collective Media, Adify, Fox Interactive Media, Turn and dozens of others.

Of course, the elephant in the room is (always) Google (including the massive DoubleClick and AdSense ad networks). Interestingly we found no mention of TRUSTe certification mentioned in their privacy policies or on TRUSTe’s list. Speaking cynically, I guess you wouldn’t expect behemoth Google to humble itself to a pesky third-party watchdog, even though Yahoo and Microsoft were willing to do so. 

For privacychoice 2.0, we’re still planning to allow users to opt-out only from networks that are not TRUSTe certified, since for many consumers, it’s good enough to now that a watchdog is involved. Unfortunately, it looks like that opt-out list will be a pretty big.  

For an industry claiming to be able to regulate itself, this doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

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