Sunday, 4 September 2011

Internet advertisers and their new “privacy” icon

Look out for this icon when surfing the internet in future. Promoted by the Internet Advertising Bureau since April 2010, it’s the icon which notifies users that some form of tracking is going on. I won’t get into the argument about the extent to which the icon has been taken up – other than to note that estimates about its current use appear to differ quite considerably.

But surely that’s not the point, At least it’s a welcome step in the right direction – and for that, the key players ought to be congratulated. This turquoise triangle with a lowercase letter "i" at its centre is to be known as the Advertising Option Icon. By clicking on the triangle, you can view a disclosure statement. And you should be able to click through to a Web page that gives you the choice to opt out of being tracked.

Some privacy activists don’t believe this is good enough, and they have argued that it gives only general information on how advertising and social networks track Internet users. These activists are most upset that self-regulation just appears to have been focused on getting users to opt in to being tracked via using their social data, video and other free downloads and engaging online apps that, they argue, increasingly work via stealth means.

These activists want to see the US Congress pass a do not track law. The Federal Trade Commission will be working with the Article 29 Working Group to consider how the US and EC approaches might be co-ordinated, so as to give internet users an equivalent level of protection, regardless of where they are using their devices to access the internet. Given their entrenched historical positions on privacy issues, however, it’s going to be really interesting to see how a common solution can be developed. It looks as though both the EC and the US blocks are trying to arrive at the same solution, but they are approaching it from very different perspectives. It reminds me of the situation in the Middle East, where different groups of religious interests want to claim the same parts of Jerusalem for their own, but for very different purposes.

Let’s see how the discussions pan out. And lets settle down for a considerable period of discussion, too.

Meanwhile, let’s not decry icons such as these too much just yet. They may not meet every legal privacy requirement ever imposed by the EC, but surely they are better than nothing.

In the privacy game, we celebrate small steps towards nirvana. There are no giant leaps forward for mankind.