Editorial: Targeted ads code can help win over the public

It's in everybody's interest that the Office of Fair Trading's probe into the use of personal information to target internet advertising should lead to an industry code of practice.

For one thing, consumers need reassurance about the privacy issues raised by behavioural targeting. For another, advertisers need to have a clear idea of what is and what isn't acceptable in what's bound to become an increasingly critical but heavily scrutinised area of marketing activity. But, most importantly, it should help take the hysteria out of a debate that threatens to generate more heat than light.

Nothing encapsulates this more than the criticism being levelled at Phorm, one of the leading specialists in the field, which has been cast as some malevolent Big Brother operation, even though what it does isn't markedly different from other players.

The reality is that behavioural targeting isn't new. Most people would be amazed at how good researchers have become at linking the random pieces of data people leave behind and how accurate a picture they can build about their lives and interests. All that Phorm and others are doing is to hone the discipline with more sophisticated technology.

Nor is there any doubt that behavioural targeting is here to stay. As media fragments and the opportunities to avoid ads grow ever greater, advertisers can hardly be blamed for trying to track consumers' internet habits more closely and trying to target them with more relevant ads.

A code of conduct could mean that everybody is a winner. Online ads get delivered to users most likely to be interested in them, while consumers remain assured that personally identifiable information on them doesn't get stored.

It's a tricky balance to strike. Many will argue that if personal data can't be collected, how are ads to be personalised? Only perpetual independent scrutiny can ensure that behavioural targeting specialists keep their promises.