Canadians who get creeped out by web ads that seem to know a little too much about their personal habits should have access in the coming months to an opt-out tool that will help fight the effect of so-called behavioural advertising.
IAB Canada, a non-profit association representing the digital marketing and advertising industry, is currently in negotiations with the Digital Advertising Alliance in the U.S. to adopt its self-regulating program, which is already in place south of the border.
A blue icon with a lower-case "i" denotes ads that are appearing because of behavioural advertising practices, based on a user's past web history. The icon links to aboutads.info, which includes an opt-out feature used by about 160 ad agencies, ad networks and companies, including the likes of American Express, AT&T, Bank of America, Conde Nast, Dell, Delta, Forbes, Google, Microsoft, Verizon and Yahoo!
'I think just by daily culture now most people understand that they're being tracked online — it's not because they've read the terms and conditions.' —Jennifer Stoddart, privacy commissioner
"They're about two years ahead of us, so they're looking at other things now and they're moving onto mobile, etc. — but we have to get this in place in Canada first," said outgoing IAB Canada president Paula Gignac.
"It'll certainly be I don't believe any later than (the third quarter) of 2012."
Behavioural advertising is typically based on web browser "cookies," files that reside on a user's computer and contain information about usage history and habits. For example, visiting a website or launching a search about tourist sites in Montreal could trigger more travel-related ads as you browse the web. Advertisers say it's a good way to get relevant ads to users but many feel the practice is an invasion of privacy, even if the ad companies don't receive personal information through cookies.
Gignac said there's been no resistance within the industry as IAB Canada has moved closer to allowing users to opt-out of behavioural tracking.
"There wasn't any push back at all," she said. "Advertisers, agencies, publishers, networks really realized that the consumer is in control and they have to be good to the consumer."
In December, Canada's privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, released guidelines for the advertising industry saying Canadians must have an easy way to say no to behavioural ads. She called the U.S. opt-out system and the move to implementing it here "a very, very positive development."
"A huge majority of Canadians think that internet companies should ask for their permission to be tracked online, and so part of our behavioural advertising initiative was to respond to this and say very clearly how the privacy law should apply online in these situations," Stoddart said.
"So we're saying it's up to those who are using tracking devices of any kind to ask for the consumer's consent."
Websites ask for consent in legalese
Websites typically do ask for consent to track user behaviours, but those requests are usually buried within the long pages of legalese-laden privacy policies or terms and conditions.
"We know privacy policies and terms and conditions are unfortunately not written always as clearly as they should," Stoddart said, but added that many users appear to know about the tracking practice and realize it's going on.
"I think just by daily culture now most people understand that they're being tracked online — it's not because they've read the terms and conditions."
There are a few existing ways for internet users to stop seeing most behavioural ads as they surf the web.
The latest versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox web browsers have do-not-track features, while Google has an optional download for its Chrome browser called "Keep My Opt-Outs." Security software maker AVG has also incorporated a similar feature into its free anti-virus software, which is turned on as a default setting.