The U.S. Congress appears determined to investigate online advertising. Early this month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee issued a letter to more than 30 companies, and what began as an inquiry into how Internet service providers use network data to target advertising, has morphed into a fishing expedition into all kinds of interactive advertising. Most notably, and despite urging by the FTC to allow self-regulation to take hold, the Committee does not differentiate between personally identifiable information and non-identifying, anonymous data used for traffic metrics, ad insertion and other common advertising purposes. Lumping different kinds of information together could needlessly undermine marketing as it has been practiced for decades. The “tailoring” of advertising, in the Committee’s words, based on consumers’ behavior and media consumption patterns, has been at the heart of marketing for as long as marketing has been around.
More disturbing are presumptions that “privacy” rights are being violated by any and all forms of behavioral or targeted marketing. Advocacy groups opposed to commercial communication seek to promote an implicit, yet fundamental redefinition of personal privacy—i.e., anything that derives from peoples’ activities, no matter how distanced or anonymous. Taken to logical conclusion, any academic, commercial or journalistic observation of consumer activity could fall under regulatory restrictions under such a framework. Not surprisingly, the FTC—with its long history of regulation of advertising practices—has argued before Congress that self-regulation is likely to be an effective means of protecting consumers’ real privacy interests. According to testimony by FTC Consumer Protection Bureau Director Lydia Parnes before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation this July, the FTC is “cautiously optimistic that the privacy concerns raised by behavioral advertising can be addressed by industry self-regulation.” Nevertheless, in the letter released this month and in three previous inquiries over the past few months, both the House and the Senate seem to be searching for a rationale to regulate. Stay tuned.