SPOTLIGHT ON: DATA PROTECTION - Brussels could be the biggest danger to UK self-regulation. Data capture curbs would make web activity hard to monitor, Alasdair Reid says

Data capture is pretty central to the one-to-one, micro marketing world promised by digital media. Unfortunately for the marketing community, the issue of data capture runs up slap bang against the issue of privacy.

Data capture is pretty central to the one-to-one, micro marketing

world promised by digital media. Unfortunately for the marketing

community, the issue of data capture runs up slap bang against the issue

of privacy.



When does storing and using data on the patterns of consumer online

activity become an infringement of liberties?



In Brussels it’s the staple fodder of legislative debate and on both

sides of the Atlantic privacy, like freedom of information, is one of

those issues that politicians think they can hijack to score points.



But marketers insist that they should be allowed to use customer data

responsibly. Last week, the Network Advertising Initiative, an industry

body representing major third-party ad servers in the US, appeared to

retreat from that position. The NAI told advertisers and agencies that

they will let consumers ’opt out’ - users will be able to ask

third-party servers to stop using information about them to compile

individualised profiles, even when the data isn’t personally

identifiable.



The NAI’s reasoning is that there are substantial consumer fears about

the way data is collected and used. Those concerns could restrict the

growth of web activity - and, in particular, continue to dampen

enthusiasm for web ads.



DoubleClick, a prominent NAI member, is thought to be keen on this

opt-out initiative. Last year it was mired in controversy after its

takeover of the direct marketing agency Abacus Direct - it faced

investigation after complaints (from, among others, the Electronic

Privacy Information Center) that it was merging data about online habits

with offline data that stretched to names and addresses.



DoubleClick was so stung by the criticism that it began an internet

Privacy Education Campaign, explaining how users could click out of the

’cookies’ software that collects data on their web usage.



The issue has been the subject of a political row in the US Congress and

there are fears that if the NAI doesn’t produce workable guidelines,

then the Federal Trade Commission may step in. If that happens, it may

start demanding even more stringent rules.



Does all of this have any implications on this side of the Atlantic?



Perhaps, Danny Meadows-Klue, the chairman of the Internet Advertising

Bureau, says. ’Data protection is a critical issue that we need to be

able to focus on and the new IAB taskforce will accelerate that. We are

working on a white paper that will explain what we mean by third-party

serving, looking at what are complex technologies and explaining where

the data resides. It will explain how all this works and how it can

translate into workable rules. Some of the press coverage of this issue

has been pretty knee-jerk. But we recognise that is a hot topic and that

we need to respond,’ he explains.



The issue was raised at an IAB executive meeting last week and there is

a working group looking at the responsibilities of third-party

servers.



Tim Brown, the managing director of Real Media and the IAB’s

international liaison officer, states: ’There are lots of bureaucrats in

Brussels keen to make a name for themselves as so-called champions of

people’s freedoms.



They are keen to cut this off at the shoulder without appreciating the

benefits there can be to consumers. We need self-regulation. That is

what the working party is co-ordinating with different (advertising and

marketing) associations and it is working towards a statement, a kite

mark if you like. My role is to ensure that it conforms with IAB

Europe.’



Other sources think the biggest problem will be if the IAB

overreacts.



Charlie Dobres, the chief executive of i-level, says: ’It’s easy to say

that the whole DoubleClick thing with Abacus wasn’t very smart. But my

advice to the IAB here would be to react in a measured way.’



Will DoubleClick try to drive the issue forward in the UK? Eric Stein,

DoubleClick’s UK managing director, declines to comment. But there’s

widespread scepticism about whether this is a genuine consumer issue. As

Dobres puts it: ’There’s probably a vociferous minority. The silent

majority are happy with what they have and know that it works jolly

well. Increasingly, audiences are media literate and they understand the

benefits of targeting. We have different sensibilities in the UK and we

already have a data protection act. We don’t need another one.’



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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).