Behavioral Advertising Transparency and Technology

TrustArc’s founding mission was to provide notice and choice to consumers on the internet regarding the collection and use of their personal information.

A decade later, new models continue to emerge that test the Fair Information Principles and our own self-regulatory principles.

The evolution of our program requirements and the development of new certification and enforcement models to meet emerging practices and business models, such as the Trusted Download program, inform our viewpoint on Behavioral Advertising.

TurstArc applied three main themes in our comments to the FTC regarding Behavioral Advertising.

    • The need for consumer education on behavioral targeting;
    • that all commercial beneficiaries should be accountable in providing education, notice, and choice to consumers, where appropriate;
    • and that a sliding scale for notice and choice should be employed based on practices and privacy implications.

Consumer Education

Our consumer research shows that on the whole internet users are aware they are being tracked by third parties for purposes of targeting more relevant ads, but they are discomfited by it even when it is anonymous.

This reveals a gap in consumer education efforts to make targeting and tracking more transparent and less creepy.

In line with our mission, TrustArc has begun to initiate a discussion among industry leaders to coordinate an online consumer education effort which would include developing instructional materials, and leverage TRUSTe sealholders to guide concerned consumers to an educational program.

Sliding Scale Proactive Notice

Our survey research also shows that while consumers desire more relevant advertising they want choices to limit or more finely tune their browsing experience. At a minimum notice should be provided in the privacy statement.

Since we know consumers primary purpose on websites is not to read legal notices but to transact and build experiences, we suggest that there are a variety of more appropriate ways for websites to provide notice.


The burden of education on targeting and tracking has thus far fallen on the advertising networks that have promoted behavioral targeting techniques to advertisers, publishers and their agents.

The education and transparency discussion has taken place largely within industry exclusively and not with the subject of data collection and use, consumers.

By and large the ad networks do not have direct relationships with consumers, so reliance upon them to provide education has failed.

Behavioral Advertising Opportunities

Behavioral Advertising presents both opportunities for creativity and innovation and challenges to consumer privacy. We applaud the Commission Staff’s efforts to generate dialogue on best practices in this area.

But it’s still in a nascent stage. As such, it is the appropriate moment for the broader community to begin educating consumers regarding current and emerging practices to ensure they are empowered to make appropriate choices in building their online experiences.

Companies engaging in Behavioral Advertising, aided by rapidly evolving tools and technologies, are experimenting with delivering notice and choice in a variety of innovative and powerful ways outside the privacy statement.

New methods for delivering choices are emerging. The FTC called for guidelines has spurred experimentation and collaboration for self-regulation, but additional regulation or enforcement would be premature at this stage.

In the ongoing development of our own privacy program requirements, we will be considering the range of business models and balancing consumer empowerment with the practices and available tools.

Consumer Attitudes About Behavioral Targeting

In February 2008, TrustArc and TNS Global examined consumer attitudes about behavioral targeting. Participants answered questions regarding their overall knowledge, concerns, and opinions regarding behavioral targeting benefits and activities.

    • 71% of online consumers are aware that their browsing information may be collected by a third party for advertising purposes,
    • Only 40% are familiar with the term “behavioral targeting.”
    • 57% of respondents say they are uncomfortable with advertisers using that browsing history to serve relevant ads, even when that information cannot be tied to their names or any other personal information.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt. We all visit many websites in our online activities – some we know well and some we don’t know very well. Which websites are trustworthy and which aren’t?

This is the key question, particularly when new online technologies are introduced.

When it comes to targeting and tracking, particularly by third parties, it’s clear there is still a gap where ad delivery is not demonstrating accountability and respect. Converting the 57% of users who are not comfortable is the main issue.

FTC Staff Issues Guidelines on Behavioral Targeting

The FTC staff recently published Principles for Behavioral Targeting resulting from the Ehavioral Targeting Town Hall in November.

If they follow the pattern established in FTC Security cases these principles will likely be applied going forward in FTC cases and settlements. The Commission has asked for comment by February 22, 2008.

Principle 1 Transparency:

Recommends clear and prominent, concise statement on a website (1) that data on online activities is being tracked for purpose of serving ads/providing service and (2) that consumers can choose whether or not to permit that tracking by providing a user-friendly choice mechanism. Although it is not stated whether opt-out is sufficient, that is likely the intent.

Principle 2 Security:

Provide “reasonable” security for data collected, as that term is explained in the FTC cases based upon the sensitivity of data, type of business, known risks, and available protection.

Principle 3 Data Retention:

Retain for only as long as necessary to fulfill a legitimate business purpose or law enforcement purpose.

Principle 4 Affirmative Express Consent:

For material changes in data handling/collection, obtaining affirmative express consent.

Principle 5 Affirmative Express Consent:

Obtaining affirmative express consent or a flat prohibition on the use of sensitive data for behavioral advertising.