Media Forum: Will privacy initiative work?

Is self-regulation of online behavioural ads sensible?

Are you suffering from the occasional tense, nervous headache? And do you suspect that it's caused by worry and confusion about the industry's cause du jour, behavioural advertising? Do you, in short, find yourself succumbing to attacks of anxiety? Don't worry. You are not alone.

And, what's more, help could be at hand. The European Advertising Standards Alliance and the Advertising Standards Authority, together with the Internet Advertising Bureau, have clubbed together to offer a modicum of relief. Or the prospect thereof. It's called self-regulation. And the proposals look good. At first glance, at least - if for no other reason than the fact that, in comparison, the official, governmental regulatory picture seems so muddy.

New European legislation is due to be incorporated into UK national law towards the end of May but there are few hints, as yet, as to exactly what form the UK version of the European Union directive will take. Or whether it will bear any relation to the way that other EU governments choose to implement this whole business. Or, indeed, the impact that any of this will make on the online advertising market.

So, arguably, it was time someone stepped up to the plate. Last week, both the EASA (with its "self-regulatory standard for online behavioural advertising that will ensure consumer privacy across Europe") and the IAB (and its "framework that outlines good practice aimed at enhancing transparency and consumer control") both obliged.

The IAB claims to have made the initial running here - and its members have agreed to run an icon in and around behaviourally targeted ads. If you click on the icon, you arrive at a site, funded (at this stage, at least) by IAB members, that explains your rights as a consumer. Day-to-day administration of self-regulatory issues, however, will be overseen by the EASA and its individual member agencies - the ASA, for instance, in the UK.

If there's any niggling worry at this stage, it's the suspicion that there are some petty rivalries simmering beneath the self-regulatory surface. The IAB and the EASA couldn't be persuaded to come together for a joint announcement, for instance - and are continuing to ensure they have plenty of opportunity to blow their own trumpets.

But these recommendations represent real progress, James Wildman, the managing director and vice-president of sales at Yahoo!, says. He adds: "The principles embodied in these guidelines are a collaborative effort between many players in the advertising value chain, including the main trade bodies representing agencies, advertisers and publishers."

And Will Smyth, OMD's head of digital, points out that self-regulation is always preferable to the intervention of what he calls higher powers - particularly as there's confusion as regards EU-inspired regulations.

He comments: "It's true to say that the regulatory position, generally, is rather complex. But I think what the IAB has been doing at a European level makes sense. We need to reassure consumers that behavioural targeting is in their interests - despite all the bad press. I'm generally optimistic, though. I don't believe that EU law will be interpreted in any way that would stifle innovation in what is a successful and growing industry."

David Ellison, ISBA's marketing services manager, says the industry should be reassured at the role being taken up by the ASA. After all, it's the established regulator. "The tried-and-tested route of appealing to the ASA will be the system's backstop, giving a high degree of assurance should a consumer wish to make a complaint," he says.

He believes that the adoption of a European-wide icon will send a clear signal to consumers. He adds: "ISBA has been working closely with the World Federation of Advertisers, the IAB and the Advertising Association to prepare these recommendations - and we are hopeful that they will develop into a respected compliance mechanism that both reassures consumers and further confirms the authoritative position of the UK's self-regulatory system."

Absolutely, Norm Johnston, the global digital leader at Mindshare, agrees. He argues that this represents a significant step forward for the digital marketing industry: "We're collectively taking responsibility for an environment that consumers perceive to be increasingly fraught with danger. The industry needs to ensure that both advertisers and consumers feel confident - and comfortable that we're adhering to common sense."

YES - James Wildman, managing director, Yahoo!

"We welcome this. Yahoo! is strongly committed to the icon initiative, which will help in making online behavioural advertising more transparent and easier to manage by the individual."

YES - Will Smyth, head of digital, OMD

"I think the advertising industry generally has a good track record when it comes to self-regulation. The ASA, in particular, has an excellent track record. So I'm optimistic."

YES - David Ellison, marketing services manager, ISBA

"The primary beneficiaries will be consumers - and advertisers want to engage with satisfied consumers. Those brands which ensure that the new recommendations are implemented will be giving their consumers confidence that their online privacy is protected."

YES - Norm Johnston, global digital leader, Mindshare

"It's a positive and necessary development. There's no reason why online advertising shouldn't follow the same ethics as offline advertising. In fact, we may have more of an obligation to self-regulate given the history and nature of the internet."