Europe's consumers to have greater control of online ad tracking

More companies that advertise on the Internet in Europe will give consumers the option to turn off advertisements that collect personal data ahead of the introduction of new European Union regulations.

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More companies that advertise on the Internet in Europe will give consumers the option to turn off advertisements that collect personal data ahead of the introduction of new European Union (EU) regulations.

The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) Europe released guidelines on Thursday called the OBA (Online Behavioural Advertising) Framework. It details how advertisers can inform consumers of behavioural tracking technologies and give them the option of turning the tracking off.

The framework was released before the EU's so-called "Cookie Directive" takes effect on 25 May. It requires companies to get explicit consent before using tracking cookies, or data files that record information such as people's web browsing and their approximate location, among other parameters.

The law is the result of increasing concern over data collected by advertisers. Tracking people's browsing on the Internet offers the potential for higher revenue since more relevant ads can be shown to consumers. But privacy campaigners have warned that consumers are often unaware of the tracking and that it could be viewed as an invasion of privacy.

IAB Europe said 39 companies and websites have agreed to comply with the framework, which requires that behavioural advertisements carry a label informing consumers that tracking technologies are being used and giving consumers the choice to opt out.

Companies participating in IAB Europe's initiative include Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL and websites such as the BBC, Financial Times and the Telegraph.

IAB Europe positioned the announcement as an industry effort at self regulation. However, the European Commission will decide whether the proposals from member states comply with the directive.

The directive doesn't prescribe exactly how consumers should be informed. It says that a cookie should only be stored or accessed on a computer if "the user has given his or her consent, having been provided with clear and comprehensive information".

IAB Europe's guidelines call for advertisements to carry a uniform icon that, if clicked, would give consumers clear information about the advertisement and the choice to opt out of further tracking.

Last month, Yahoo began labeling its ads with an "AdChoices" button visible in the right-hand corner. Other companies are expected to introduce labeling no later than June 2012, IAB Europe said.

There are similar concerns in the US over behavioural advertising. The US Federal Trade Commission supports creating a mechanism that allows consumers to opt out of online advertising.

The Do Not Track project has gained broad support. The specification, which is incorporated into browser and websites, allows a user to opt out of behavioural advertising by sending an HTTP header to a website informing the site the user does not want to be watched. It is envisioned that all websites would honour those requests and not track users.

Mozilla's latest Firefox 4 browser supports the do-not-track mechanism. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 browser has what it calls "Tracking Protection", which allows users to import third-party lists of domains whose tracking advertising technologies will be blocked.

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