Self-Regulatory Online Behavioral Advertising Principles: What’s Déjà New?

In a speech in November 1942, Sir Winston Churchill remarked, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

So, if you have been following along with the original announcement and each of the following “principle summaries” posted on Legal Bytes:

. . . and, if you have read the actual report, then you will appreciate that “Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising”, consistent with the Federal Trade Commission’s support of industry self-regulation, are patterned after the highly successful record of the Council of Better Business Bureaus in regulating the traditional advertising industry for more than 30 years. A record that includes industry collaboration, self-regulatory principles and monitoring, and close collaboration with the Federal Trade Commission over the years, as the industry and advertising models evolved.

While one is always careful to ensure that at some point governmental intervention may be necessary to protect consumers from those who abuse the system or violate the law, the question to ask is whether and to what extent new or different regulation is required. That is certainly a question being asked (and being answered) by a coalition of 10 consumer advocacy and privacy groups in its recently released report, “Online Behavioral Tracking and Targeting Concerns and Solutions”, in response to the industry principles. More importantly, one may ask whether a concretized and codified piece of legislation is likely to remain relevant or even defensible in the face of innovation and technology that could not have been predicted five years ago and, I believe, will remain relatively unpredictable in the future.

That said, some aspects of advertising are predictable. Development, display and distribution mechanism will evolve dynamically as technology and innovation continue. Notions of consumer privacy and data protection will continue to evolve and be difficult to harmonize across nations, across cultural and local boundaries, and—because privacy is and has always been context specific—in time and space. What might have been considered private in 16th century France is very different from the concept of privacy that permeates the hearts and minds of citizens of Japan or Brazil today. Indeed, even the role of government in protecting one’s right to privacy and the use of information about oneself, is an ever-changing one. Advertising models and economics will continue to change, with metrics and quantification methodologies being sparred and argued over, recognizing that even the roles of advertisers, agencies, media buyers, and broadcast and publishing networks, as well as ISPs, search engine, browser and web hosting companies—the technology players—are and will continue to change. Wireless and mobile devices will continue to expand the domain of advertising and challenge our ability to capture consumers’ interest on tiny mobile screens, while the opposite is taking place in our living rooms—with the separation of desktop or laptop computing and home television and entertainment centers being increasingly irrelevant (and screens becoming larger). Oh, and did we forget to mention how online gaming and the interplay between gaming console, entertainment and product placement, virtual worlds and display advertising, are all blurring (pardon the pun) right before our eyes?

So if you have ever attempted to change a tire on a moving automobile, you have a vision of what the “industry” is and will look like in the future. Under these circumstances, traditional regulation as we knew it, may not make sense. What might make sense is a more dynamic system of regulation. One that is more flexible, more adaptable and more capable of interacting and reacting to changing circumstances, mechanisms, technology and the environment. Perhaps allowing the industry and the Federal Trade Commission, in conjunction with other agencies already tasked with the mission of protecting consumers within their particular areas of authority (e.g., FDA, FCC, FAA, and the list goes on) to develop self-regulatory enforcement mechanisms, referral mechanisms, and a track record, may be the best way to determine what, where and when regulation may be needed.

In the meantime, you may want to ask yourself if you are misbehaving as an advertiser or marketing professional, and register and listen in to our “Are You Behaving Badly” Teleseminar Sept. 30, which will tackle current issues in global regulation of behavioral advertising.

As always, I and my colleagues in the Advertising Technology & Media law practice at Rimon are ready to assist in guiding, advising and providing legal support where and when you need it. We’ve been changing tires for more than a century!