The incredible vanishing icon

November 11, 2010

If you’re following the roll-out of the new ad-industry push to provide greater disclosure for ad targeting, you’ve probably noticed this icon starting to appear in or around ads you see online. Under the new rules, an icon like this needs to appear whenever behavioral data are collected or used in the course of delivering an ad. The icon leads to opt-out functionality where the user can choose not to see more behavioral ads.

It turns out that for many privacy-concerned people, it will be the absence of the icon that matters most of all. This is because, theoretically, once you’ve opted out from behavioral targeting from any company you shouldn’t see the icon again from them because, by definition, they can’t be using profile information to target ads to you. Someone who has opted out globally shouldn’t ever see the icon. If they do see it, it means that a new company is tracking them, or they’ve cleared all of their browser cookies (removing their opt-out, too).

That’s a win for consumers who decide to opt-out, since they will always know if there’s a problem with their status, and the icon offers an easy way to get back to the opt-out function again. But this also makes it very important that the icon only be delivered when behavioral targeting is in action and the user hasn’t opted out. Operationally, this means ad companies can’t take a belt-and-suspenders approach by over-delivering the icon with every ad to every consumer. If icons appear when they’re not supposed to, this will become a point of irritation for consumers, and a source of complaints to manage.

It’s a separate question whether people will understand that the absence of the icon does not guarantee that behavioral data is not being collected; an opt-out only stops ad targeting and not necessarily underlying data collection. Given the inherent power of the icon as a consumer communications tool, ad companies need to be crystal clear about the underlying substance of what it means (or doesn’t).

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