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New Study Says DAA's Privacy Program Falls Short

Users misunderstand program's taglines and icon
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A new study from Carnegie Mellon University throws cold water on the reputed success of the Digital Advertising Alliance's self-regulatory privacy program, which gives consumers the choice to opt out of behaviorally targeted advertising.

The DAA's "AdChoices" program, which uses an in-ad icon that directs users to a page where they can opt out of targeted ads, has so far managed to placate regulators and lawmakers alarmed about protecting consumer privacy online. Serving up more than a trillion ads a month, the program even earned praise from regulators at the Federal Trade Commission and the Commerce Department with the release of two landmark privacy reports.

At the same time regulators praised self-regulation, they also called for new laws to fill in the gaps. Now, with the release of Carnegie Mellon's study, "What Do Online Behavioral Advertising Disclosures Communicate to Users?", those calls might get a little louder.

The online survey of more than 1,500 adults 18 and older found that the "AdChoices" tagline did not communicate notice or choice. A full 45 percent of participants thought the tagline meant to be a sale for ad space. The study also found that users were reluctant to click on the icon; more than half believed that clicking on it would trigger an ad.

"If users do not understand the purpose of clicking on the icon, it is unlikely that many users will click on it," the study's authors concluded.

The study was just what privacy advocates needed to reinforce the argument that self-regulation was not designed to give users notice and choice about their privacy options, but rather to protect online behavioral advertising, a growing segment of the online ad biz.

"We explained to the FTC last fall that the icon program was designed in a deceptive way to maintain data collection practices as usual," said Jeff Chester, the executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, who sent the study both to the FTC and the European Union, which is holding a roundtable on online behavioral advertising on April 13. "This research shows that this is an ineffective system that requires a serious revision."

Chester and others think the study will give the FTC new leverage to go back to the DAA to ask that the rules be revised. "You can be sure this galvanized staff about raising questions about the DAA's system," Chester said.

Representatives from the DAA were not immediately available for comment.