Investigating Online & Interactive Advertising

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.

To Collect or Not To Collect, That’s the Dilemma?

This article was contributed by Adam Snukal, Esq.

Surfed the web lately? Seen a banner promoting a product, service or trip to Ireland you priced yesterday? Serendipity? Luck? Cookies? Yes, it’s those tiny files placed on your computer when you visit a website. Advertisers can now parse through cookies on your computer when you visit certain websites and instantaneously serve up advertisements based on your historical online behavior—“behavioral marketing.” For some, this is a great convenience. For others, like New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, this is invasive and should be stopped unless the consumer has given consent.

Assemblyman Brodsky sees the acquisition of Doubleclick by Google as a step backward for consumers since the combined company could tap into a reservoir of consumer behavior and search data on an individual basis. So he introduced a bill aimed at restricting Internet behavioral marketing—The Third Party Internet Advertising Consumers’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008—that would prohibit advertisers from collecting and using sensitive, personally identifiable information from users online; require websites to clearly and conspicuously disclose behavioral policies and practices; give consumers the right to opt-out of profiling practices; prevent their online behavior from being collected and used to deliver targeted advertisements; and police how advertisers are permitted to merge and synthesize such information with other data (e.g., merging personally identifiable information collected offline with information collected online). Opponents—some of the largest interactive advertising and media companies—have voiced their opposition in a letter to Assemblyman Brodsky, noting, “Time after time, state laws that have attempted to impose this sort of broad Internet regulation have been struck down by the courts, doing nothing more than making taxpayers bear the expense both of defending the lawsuit and paying the successful plaintiffs’ attorneys fees.”

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It’s a Dyanmic Environment Out There: Yes, You Can Still Avoid Being a Target

Most of us know the law tends to lag behind the marketplace. It is in the nature of most legal systems to try and balance statutory and regulatory authority—which makes rules based on experience or potential issues that will apply to future conduct—with judicial and regulatory decisions—cases that are adjudicated, create precedent and help shape the contours and boundaries of what is or is not permissible behavior within the statutory authorities.

In such a framework, we are often asked to counsel clients as to what is or is not acceptable when there may be little law, few regulations and sometimes no precedent. What to do? Well, as you may imagine, there is no simple answer. But there are some guideposts. A key guidepost is to consider common sense, best practices and some lessons learned from analogous legal precedent.

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