IAB's Opt-Out Panel

by on under tech-policy
4 minute read

IAB Logo

A couple of weeks ago the Interactive Advertising Bureau, one of the largest industry groups and self-regulatory bodies in online advertising, instated a new code of conduct for its members. In summary, the new code requires any IAB member site that collect information about users to display the logo to the right as an indication to users that collection is occurring, and to provide users with information about what is being collected and why.

While the new code of conduct has taken flack for not actually providing clear notice, this latest action by the IAB does bring some attention to the organization's (beta) Opt-Out page. The Opt-Out page provides users with a way to request that IAB members not collect information about them for advertising purposes. The page, located at http://www.aboutads.info/choices/, is pretty simple to use: all you need to do is visit the page, make sure you are on the "All Participating Companies" tab, select the companies that you don't want to have track you (or click "Select All Shown" to opt-out of tracking from all IAB advertisers), and then click Submit Your Choices at the bottom. Once you submit your choices, a cookie will be placed on your computer informing the companies you selected that you do not wish to be tracked. Aside form the Opt-Out page, the site includes information about online advertising (with an industry spin of course) such as how to adjust the privacy settings in your browser and the self regulatory principles of the IAB that are worth checking out.

Does it Work?

So the page is easy to use, but does it actually increase your privacy? Well, there are a few factors to consider that show the weaknesses of the opt-out page:

It applies to IAB members - which are a lot of advertisers to be sure, and includes most of the biggest advertising companies. Still, there are a lot of other companies and sites out there that are not IAB members, and thus are not affected by this Opt-Out page.

It relies on companies respecting your decisions - Between the IAB's own enforcement and the threat of FTC legal actions, IAB companies have plenty of reason to not track you if you tell them not to. Unfortunately, the history of Internet privacy is full of examples of sites or companies not respecting the wishes of consumers, even when they have said they would. For that reason, some skeptisim is reasonable here, and personally I'm not yet ready to trust the intentions or ability of the IAB to respect my privacy decisions. This opt-out page allows you to ask that companies shutoff their tracking, which is different from the approach tools such as Ghostery take, which actually blocks information from being sent, and is an approach I'm more willing to trust right now.

It uses cookies - If you are concerned about privacy on the Internet, you probably have your browser set to not accept cookies/delete cookies when you close the browser/or delete cookies often. That means the Opt-Out page is pretty useless to the privacy concerned, since any choices set via the page will be lost within a short amount of time. This is a problem that engineers and policy makers have been discussing since Do-Not-Track became a big deal, and in my opinion it reveals a problem with how cookies are managed by browsers. The current cookie management model of the major browsers is built on an all or nothing choice - either have all cookies on and retained, or have all cookies off and deleted. Despite years of messaging about how bad cookies are, the IAB's Opt-Out page shows that not all cookies are bad. Browsers need a more sophisticated cookie management system that allows a user to select which cookies can be kept for a long time and which should be deleted right away. Until that happens, the Opt-Out page might as well not exist, and users should instead use opt-out plugins like TACO.

It only applies to one browser on one machine - This limitation applies to many privacy protection tools, but it is an important one. If you submit opt-out requests in Firefox on your home PC, then tracking will still occur on IE on that PC, or Firefox on your laptop.

So Should I Use It?

The short answer is no.

Unfortunately, the Opt-Out page isn't a reliable tool for privacy protection, mostly because of the cookie problem discussed above. This is especially unfortunate since this page is likely the result of hours of discussion involving IAB companies, the FTC, and consumer groups, and represents what I would like to believe is an honest effort by the industry to address privacy concerns.

Given the level of discussion and work going into Do-Not-Track, it is likely that the IAB's Opt-Out page will merge with a browser based Do-Not-Track manager. Until that happens, privacy concerned consumers will have to continue to rely on third party tools to prevent companies from tracking them all around the Internet.

Advertising, Consumer Rights, Privacy
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