Advertisers can't be trusted to self-regulate on data collection, says EFF

A Digital Advertising Alliance proposal does not go far enough, the group says

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) doesn't think that the digital advertising industry can efficiently regulate itself and has issued a statement saying that the self-regulatory principles for multisite data recently published by the Digital Advertising Alliance will suffer from a lack of enforcement.

The Digital Advertising Alliance is an association of companies and organizations with an interest in online advertising. The alliance was created to establish a common set of guidelines in an attempt to demonstrate that the industry can regulate itself in matters of consumer choice.

However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that the DAA's previous programs were not very successful. The organization cites a Carnegie Mellon University study that concluded that DAA's cookie-based tool for opting out of online behavioral advertising is difficult to use and is largely misunderstood by users.

The same goes for DAA's advertising option icon, which gets displayed on behavioral ads. Clicking on this icon should provide users with information about data collection and behavioral advertising, but a Truste survey performed earlier this year showed that only 5 percent of Internet users recognized its significance.

However, the biggest problem the EFF sees with the new principles for multisite data, which are supposed to serve as a framework for transparency and consumer control on cross-site data collection, is enforcement.

"Like the DAA's previous initiatives, there are no teeth in the Principles for Multi-Site Data," the EFF said in a blog post. "There are no repercussions spelled out for receiving a bad report. There's no indication that fines or even formal reprimands will be issued to bad actors, and no provision for removing bad actors from the DAA," it added.

According to the foundation, the DAA's behavioral advertising self-regulation efforts, which have been running for much longer, suffer from similar accountability issues and it's still not clear how those guidelines are enforced.

The EFF would rather see the DAA adopt simple opt-out mechanisms like the Do Not Track (DNT) feature available in Safari, Internet Explorer and Firefox. DNT is controlled by a simple checkbox in the browser's interface and, when activated, it sends a special value along with every Web request in order to inform websites that the user doesn't wish to be tracked.

However, for DNT to have any effect, websites and online advertising networks need to respect the consumer choice expressed through it. "The DAA's self-regulatory principles, while not bad, fall far short of the user benefits of Do Not Track," the EFF said.

The organization believes that self-regulatory programs can not replace proper legislation and points out that there are multiple bills bing discussed by the U.S. Congress that deal with data protection, online privacy, consumer choice and commercial accountability.

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Lucian Constantin

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