While Congress members submit bill after bill meant to protect consumer privacy, DoubleClick, the online ad network that kicked up controversy with its now-postponed, online profiling plans, has begun trying to tackle the same issues on its own with its new privacy advisory panel.
Convened for the first time earlier this month, DoubleClick’s eight-member Consumer Privacy Board is chaired by former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams and includes representatives from such groups as the World Wide Web Consortium and the Children’s Advertising Unit.
It also includes some skeptism.
“I’m sure there were a number of people in the room that had reservations about what they previously did with Abacus [Direct Corp.],” said Robert E. Litan, vp and director of economic studies for The Brookings Institution in Washington. “And that was including me.”
What DoubleClick did was acquire Abacus’ database of consumer catalog purchases and then announce plans to combine that information with its own anonymous data culled from Net user Web habits. The result would have been detailed profiles on consumer spending habits. Instead, the company faced strong public concerns. DoubleClick has since put its plans on hold until the government and the industry can agree on privacy standards.
To move that process along, DoubleClick invited Litan and seven other experts to its offices earlier this month to explain its business practices and to start work on defining the discussion surrounding online privacy issues.
DoubleClick’s efforts impressed Stewart A. Baker, a partner in the Washington-based law firm of Steptoe & Johnson, who has already served on an online privacy advisory group for the Federal Trade Commission.
“They talked about privacy in a way that made it clear that they had been struggling with how to reconcile their business with people’s privacy concerns on a daily basis,” said Baker.
“At bottom, this is a company that believes in tailoring its ads,” he said. “So the question is how do you reconcile tailoring with people’s privacy interests? I think there’s probably a way to do it. Obviously, there’s opt out and you can make it easier, but most people won’t do that. Most people want to be assured that they’re getting tailored ads but that it also doesn’t mean that somebody is collecting a massive dossier on them. That’s the trick–to find the compromise.”
DoubleClick’s own opt-out page is a good first step, said Lori Fena, chairman of TRUSTe and author of a recent book on online privacy, called The Hundredth Window. “But what we all agreed on is that DoubleClick isn’t the company that has the relationship with the end user.” So already, she said, “they’re making that part of their retail contract.”
Going forward, Fena said the group, which plans to meet three times a year, also will consider privacy issues surrounding mobile technology.
“If you have a small device,” she said, “the idea of giving somebody notice becomes a lot more interesting. You certainly can’t read a contract, you certainly can’t read a long policy notice. But at the same time, that’s not an excuse for consumer hoodwinking.”
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