Online behavioral advertising (OBA) has become a very common tool for commercial websites. OBA can be defined as follows:
the collection of data online from a particular computer or device regarding web viewing behaviors over time and across Web sites for the purpose of using such data to predict preferences or interests and to deliver advertising to that computer or device presumed to be of interest to the user of the computer/device based on observed Web viewing behaviors.
WHAT’S THE CONCERN?
While the use of OBA is largely unregulated by law in the U.S. at this time, its spread has generated concern among privacy advocates. Of particular concern is the gathering of data about consumers without their knowledge where such information is supposed to be anonymous but advances in technology make it more and more possible to link that information to individuals (not just devices) through combination with other information. Examples can include information about health conditions and other sensitive information gleaned by watching the sites a user visits, the searches he/she conducts, etc. Key characteristics of OBA include that it is: (a) invisible to the user; (b) hard to detect; and (c) resilient to being blocked or removed.
In an effort to stave off government regulation of OBA in the United States, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), a consortium of the leading advertising trade associations, has instituted a leading set of guidelines. Based on standards proposed by the Federal Trade Commission, the DAA Self-Regulatory Program is designed to give consumers enhanced control over the collection and use of data regarding their Internet viewing for OBA purposes.
The key principles of the DAA’s guides are to provide greater transparency to consumers to allow them to know when OBA is occurring and to provide the ability to opt out. For commercial website operators that allow OBA on their sites, the compliance implications are as follows:
- First Party OBA. First Parties are website operators/publishers. If a company simply gathers information for its own purposes on its own site, it is generally not covered by the guidelines. However, as soon as the First Party allows others to engage in OBA via the site, it has a duty to monitor and make sure that proper disclosures are being made and even to make the disclosures itself if the others do not do so, including assuring that “enhanced notice” (usually the icon discussed below or a similar statement) appears on every page of the First Party’s site where OBA is occurring.
- Third-Party OBA. Third parties are ad networks, data companies/brokers, and sometimes advertisers themselves, who engage in OBA through ads placed on other parties’ sites. These Third Parties should provide consumers with the ability to exercise choice with respect to the collection and use of data for OBA purposes. (See below on how to provide recommended disclosures.)
- Service Providers. These are providers of Internet access, search capability, browsers, apps or other tools that collect data about sites a user visits Service Providers generally are expected to provide clear disclosure of OBA practices which may occur via their services, obtain consumer consent for such practices, and provide an easy-to-use opt-out mechanism.
HOW TO COMPLY
Generally, Third Parties and Service Providers should give clear, meaningful, and prominent notice on their own websites that describes their OBA data collection and use practices. Such notice should include clear descriptions that include:
- The types of data collected online, including any PII for OBA purposes;
- The uses of such data, including whether the data will be transferred to a nonaffiliate for OBA purposes;
- An easy to use mechanism for exercising choice with respect to the collection and use of the data for OBA purposes or to the transfer of such data to a nonaffiliate for such purpose; and
- The fact that the entity adheres to OBA principles.
The icon/link should appear in or around each ad where data are collected. Alternatively, it can appear on each page of a website on which any OBA ads are being served. It is normally the duty of the advertisers (Third Parties) to deploy the icon. However, if they fail to do so, then the operator of the site where the OBA ads appear has the duty to make appropriate real-time disclosures about OBA on each page where OBA activity is occurring, including links to the DAA page describing OBA practices and providing an easy-to-use opt-out mechanism.
The DAA is taking its OBA guidelines seriously. It has issued sets of “compliance warnings” to many major U.S. companies. While DAA has no direct authority to impose fines or penalties, its issuance of a ruling finding a violation of its guidelines could create a tempting target for the FTC or plaintiffs’ class action lawyers to bring separate actions against a company not following the DAA guidelines. For all these reasons, operators of websites employing OBA (either first party or third party) should pay heed to the DAA Guidelines.