Google, Others Discuss Their Ad Targeting Secrets; Push For Legislation Is 'Bipartisan'

David Kaplan
Tuesday, August 12, 2008; 11:07 AM

More than a dozen of the 33 companies asked by Congress to describe their behavioral targeting activities say they do not engage in the practice, WaPo reported. But lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle say they've seen enough in the responses of those to do target to say that legislation guaranteeing "online privacy bill of rights" will be introduced next year. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA.), who created the House's Privacy Caucus 12 years ago, said the law would stipulate that consumers give their consent before companies can legally monitor, collect and share data on their web usage. Speaking on the wide support for a bill that would curb some of that activity, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is holding the hearings: "A broad approach to protecting people's online privacy seems both desirable and inevitable."Details from Google's ( NSDQ: GOOG) and AOL's ( NYSE: TWX) responses after the jump.

-- Google: we're not NebuAd: In Google's response (PDF) to the committee, the search giant said that it does not use "deep-packet inspection," a dat mining filter employed by behavioral targeters like NebuAd, which has tested with some broadband providers. This latest round of Congressional activity was sparked after Charter Communications ( NSDQ: CHTR) embarked?and then quickly abandoned?an ad targeting program with NebuAd last month. Still, Google did acknowledge that it had begun to use the "DoubleClick ad-serving cookie," which tracks users' online activity, in July. Despite its tracking ability, Google stressed in its letter to the committee that it did not engage in behavioral targeting based on that data. In a Google Blog post, the company reiterated that users can opt-out of the DoubleClick cookie, though elsewhere, it promised to provide marketers with "insight into the number of people who have seen an ad campaign, and how many times, on average, people are seeing these ads."

-- AOL: behavioral targeting with a smile: Like Google, AOL's response also emphasizes the differences between its online ad practices and the kind that raised hackles for Charter and NebuAd. While noting the behavioral targeting functions across thousands of sites through its Platform-A ad unit, AOL insisted that it does not collect personal information about users from web publishers in its network, which it said reaches 170 million U.S. users. And yes, users can opt-out of the system. But AOL tries to convince the committee of the benefits of targeting, which includes serving auto ads to individuals whose behavior indicates that they're in the market for a car. Apart from that, AOL makes an economic argument, noting that online advertising generates $21 billion a year and " fosters development and growth in many other industries and sectors critical to the U.S. economy." Despite their attempts to contrast themselves with some of the more extreme ad targeting practices, Google, AOL and Yahoo ( NSDQ: YHOO) (which touted its coming out-opt policy last week) and others may have a tough time heading off privacy legislation, especially in an election year. With that in mind, the companies' responses?which are collected on the committee's site here?are clearly meant to influence whatever bill lawmakers ultimately decide to introduce.


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