Sunday, March 22, 2009

An Icon That Says They’re Watching You

I have an open question for the people who complain about the potential of advertising networks to track your behavior on the Internet: What is a better way?

Some might say that all behavioral targeting should simply be banned. But if you don’t think that showing Chevy ads to people looking for cars is equivalent to poisoning the peanut butter, we need a middle ground that explains to people what’s going on and lets them decide what is acceptable.

This is much harder than it sounds: Any one Web page you visit can have a dozen advertisements and invisible bits of code that each send information about you to different companies, each with different ways of using that data. The privacy policy of the site you are looking at — not that anyone reads privacy policies — can’t even try to explain this to you, because the site owner doesn’t even know what all of its advertisers are doing.

Joseph Turow Example of an icon–the T? below the ad–to indicate the advertiser collects or uses data about the browser

I’m coming to the conclusion that each advertisement on a page has to speak for itself. That’s implicit in the approach Google is taking for its new behavioral targeting system. It puts the phrase “Ads by Google” on all its advertisements. Click that link and you’ll get some limited information about Google’s targeting system and an ability to adjust some of the interests that Google is tracking.

But Google’s approach is presented in a way that glosses over what they are doing and discourages people from reading the disclosure and exercising control, says Joseph Turow, a marketing professor at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Turow has developed a plan that is simpler and more comprehensive: Put an icon on each ad that signifies that the ad collects or uses information about users. If you click the icon, you will go to what he calls a “privacy dashboard” that will let you understand exactly what information was used to choose that ad for you. And you’ll have the opportunity to edit the information or opt out of having any targeting done at all.

“I don’t think ‘Ads by Google’ is enough,’” he said. “The problem with the whole rhetoric Google is using is that it is designed to stop you from wanting to learn more and do something.”

In his mockup, Mr. Turow’s icon has a T for targeting and a question mark. I would propose a bull’s-eye or maybe some sort of creepy eyeball.

What I like about the idea of an icon is that users can learn which ads collect data without having to do anything other than surf the way they normally would. When they do get curious, you can click on the icon and learn more.

I asked Nicole Wong, the deputy general counsel of Google who looks after privacy issues, about Mr. Turow’s concept. She defended the phrase “Ads by Google” on the grounds of simplicity. Anything more risks confusing users.

“I wonder, would the user really understand what a behaviorally targeted ad is compared to a contextual ad?” she said, saying the company is open to changing the phrasing of the text of its notice.

The information that Google shows to people who click on the link on these ads is also similar to, but more limited than, what Mr. Turow proposes.

Mr. Turow’s dashboard is meant to explain exactly why you are seeing a particular ad. You will see what part of it was customized — the product, the price, the image and so on. You will also see the data used — your surfing habits, outside data vendors, inferences from your I.P. address, etc. You can click to learn more specifics about exactly where the data came from and to delete or modify the information used about you.

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