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Study: 'Do Not Track" Opt-out Compliance Varies Among Advertisers

Several news sources recently reported the results of a study by researchers at the Stanford Security Lab. The researchers developed a method to monitor whether or not advertisers complied with the consumer opt-out selection from targeted advertising.

Consumers can opt out of targeted advertising at the Network Advertising Iniative website, or use this beta version Firefox Add-on. You can read the research study methodology here, with updates from several advertisers.

AdWeek reported the researchers' findings:

"Nearly half of the companies participating in the self-regulatory Network Advertising Initiative do not remove tracking cookies after users opt out of online behavioral ad targeting, according to Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student and research fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. At least eight of the companies explicitly say they’ll stop tracking after users opt out but continue to leave tracking cookies in place, said Mayer."

Those eight companies included: 24/7 Real Media, Adconion, AudienceScience, Netmining, Undertone, Vibrant Media, Wall Street on Demand, and TARGUSinfo AdAdvisor.

If a company says it won't track you, then remove the tracking mechanism from that consumers browser/computer. And there is confusion:

"... on some industry sites that specifically mention data collection, the language is written in such a way that people might think they’re opting out of collection altogether, but they’re actually only opting out of information gathering for the specific use of ad targeting."

So, a comprehensive solution would seem to have to include at least three factors:

  1. Clear, consistent language about what the consumer is opting out of (e.g., target ads, tracking, data collection, all of the above)
  2. Clear, consistent compliance and removal of the tracking mechanisms
  3. Independent auditing of advertiser opt-out compliance, since most consumers do not have the time, skills, nor experience to perform this technical audit. Ideally, the audit would also publish the names of offending companies

The research study results suggest to me that self-regulation probably is not working. What do you think?

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