[AfrICANN-discuss] Content rules? Rules for ads, Big Brother and nerds

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Sun Apr 20 18:18:18 SAST 2008

*Content rules? Rules for ads, Big Brother and nerds** *


Content is king - or so they say. Still, notes here and there in the
international press, blogs, newsletters and chats with friends make one
wonder where content's kingdom is - in the UK or Nepal. I would bet on

I have long had doubts about the revenues most content can generate. The
problem is not content; it is the willingness, the ability, of enough people
to pay for it on a regular basis.

There is enough content produced to drown in, but much of it - look at
YouTube - is free. It's hard to compete with *free*; the price is right and
it sets a mark that all other content competes with. Content costs money and
consumers don't like to pay.

There is a time-tested remedy for situations such as these - advertising.
Advertisers are learning to love audiences they can target precisely - and
that is what online service providers can offer.

To target ads, advertisers accumulate data about visits made to the sites of
third-party advertising network members, and correlate consumers' surfing
habits with their personal product tastes and the likelihood that certain
types of advertising will appeal to them. The same data, though, can also
let advertisers draw conclusions about a wide range of personal behaviours
that many consumers would not like others to know about - conclusions that
can be embarrassing, erroneous, dead wrong, or even dangerous. Data
gatherers are often guilty - intentionally or not - of outrageous invasion
of privacy.

What are advertisers to do? What are the ethical ramifications? What do
advertisers know about you that you wish they didn't? What if this
information is misused or falls into the wrong hands?

A press release last week from the NAI speaks to these issues. From a
different point of view, these are some of the same issues I spoke of in my
eLetter at the end of March - about some of the risks inherent in the growth
of Internet access and the Information Society.

The NAI addresses the problem of dealing with the sensitive personal data
that Web sites and advertising networks gather by tracking visitors to their

The NAI, the *Network Advertising Initiative*, which counts Google's
DoubleClick, Yahoo's BlueLithium, AOL's Advertising.com and Tacoda among its
members, is a "cooperative of online marketing and analytics companies
committed to building consumer awareness and establishing responsible
business and data management practices and standards". They published a
draft (open for public comment until June 12 -
of a "*Self-Regulatory Code of Conduct for Online Behavioral Advertising*".
The draft is the NAI's response to proposals made by the U.S. Federal Trade
Commission's last year.

The NAI's aims to protect the consumer's privacy, to control the abuse of
OBA (Third-Party *Online Behavioural Advertising*), provide consumers with
safeguards that inform them when OBA is being used, and allow them to opt
out - to deny permission for its use.

Few people that are not involved in online marketing are aware of the
systems in place for third-party online behavioural advertising. The systems
come in a variety of flavours, but the principles are the same. Online
advertisers often take part in *advertising networks*. The networks maintain
databases of all the users that visit the sites of any of their members.
They use cookies and other technologies that let them identify Web surfers
that have visited any of the sites of a given network's members.

Typically, when users visit the site of a member of a third-party marketing
network they are automatically linked to a third-party ad server site. The
ad server identifies the visiting computer and sends it a 'cookie' - a bit
of text that is saved by the computer in a cookie file. The ad server then
records the user's access in its database. Every time a consumer accesses
the site of one of the advertising network's members, the ad server records
the visit. In time, ad servers can collect a sizeable amount of data
concerning the consumer's habits, so whenever the ad server detects one of
its own cookies in a visiting computer, it will check its files and send
back banner adds most likely to be of interest to the consumer. The
advertising network site currently visited by the consumer will then display
the banner.

It all sounds very innocent and, in truth, most often is - advertisers can
narrowly target their ads at the consumers most likely to be interested. On
the other hand, when the information that is gathered goes beyond normal
marketing needs it invades the consumer's privacy. The NAI's proposed
guidelines sets forth an ethical framework for dealing with information
gathered from members of, as they call them, 'restricted' and 'sensitive'
consumer segments.

The NAI prohibits members from targeting online behavioural advertising to
sensitive consumer segments and to children less than 13 years of age.
"Restricted and Sensitive Consumer Segments" include, but are not limited

1. Certain medical/health conditions–
A. HIV/ AIDS status
B. Sexually-related conditions (e.g., sexually transmitted diseases,
erectile dysfunction)
C. Psychiatric conditions
D. Cancer status
E. Abortion-related

2. Certain personal life information–
A. Sexual behaviour/orientation/identity (i.e.,
B. Criminal victim status (e.g., rape victim status)

There is another list of "potentially restricted" consumers. These are not
automatically excluded, but NAI members are expected to evaluate this data
within the context it will be used. This category includes - but, once
again, is not limited to data regarding: age /birth date, addictions (e.g.,
drugs, alcohol, gambling), alien status or nationality, criminal history,
death, disability, ethnic affiliation, marital status, philosophical
beliefs, political affiliation or opinions, pregnancy, racial
identification, religious affiliation or lack thereof and trade union

This is an explosive list of personal characteristics, but it is far from
exhaustive. It is great as far as it goes, but it only goes as far as a
handful of NAI members - and I am certain there is a longer list of equally
explosive characteristics that can be data mined that are not even covered.

Some of NAI's members are gigantic; even so, they cover only a small
percentage of the consumers on the Web. Then too, the rules depend upon a
great deal of case-by-case judgement by the members and the temptation to
interpret the rules leniently, loosely, is as great as the potential rewards
for doing so. Some of these 'sensitive' markets - racial groups, sexual
preference groups - are enormous and highly lucrative.

I suspect that, at best, the NAI rules will prevent only the crassest misuse
of data - its greatest strength will come from the consumer 'opt-out' and
the disclosure procedures to which members must adhere. I am certain that
much of the online behavioural advertising will just skim the line between
the ordinarily tasteless and downright bad taste - sanctimoniously defended
by their rigid adherence to the most liberal possible interpretations of the

The NAI rules are a step in the right direction, but without legally
enforced adherence by *all* online behavioural advertisers to a
comprehensive set of broadly debated rules, Big Brother is an ad agency nerd
fondling a database
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