In a report entitled “Targeted Online Advertising” (La Publicité Ciblée en Ligne), presented in February and recently released publicly, the French data protection regulatory authority (CNIL) has expressed concern that targeted online advertising could be a conduit for the merchandising of personally identifiable information about online users.
The CNIL has been examining context-sensitive, behavioral marketing and targeted advertising mechanisms online, and is concerned about privacy implications. The report notes that analyzing online user data for the purpose of serving more relevant advertising involves the collection of Internet protocol addresses, what websites a user arrived from or subsequently visited, and even key words entered by the user. In case you haven’t thought about it, definitions are hardly uniform in laws and regulations around the world, i.e., an IP address is considered personal data in the EU, but is not personally identifiable information in the United States.
The report raises an alarm over what could be a means of “systematic profiling” and examines what it believes are growing risks to privacy in this context. In France, and many jurisdictions, targeted advertising must comply with the same data protection rules that apply to the use of personal data online. The French authorities have consistently maintained that users should be specifically informed about how their data will be used, and should be given the opportunity to opt out of these uses—even if it means they can no longer use the services available on the site.
The report also specifically notes that many free services on the Internet are actually subsidized by advertising. While “free” is an accurate financial description in a literal sense, consumers often don’t appreciate they are actually paying a “price”—the value of personal information provided in exchange for “free” services they receive online.
While the report does not attempt to cover mobile or wireless advertising broadly, it does note that adding information about a user’s location through GPS and other technology, adds tracking capability that the CNIL fears will allow for even greater intrusion and profiling of individual behavior. You can read the entire CNIL report in French on their website at “La publicité ciblée en ligne” (Targeted Online Advertising).