Home Data-Driven Thinking The Global Privacy Control Is Limiting. Here’s How The Industry Can Do Better

The Global Privacy Control Is Limiting. Here’s How The Industry Can Do Better

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Andy Hepburn, Privacy Lawyer, CIPP/US, Co-founder of NEOLAW

Today, many US state privacy laws either allow or require businesses to enable consumers to opt out of targeted advertising through a technology-enabled feature commonly referred to as a Global Privacy Control (GPC).

In its FAQs, the GPC website states: “GPC … permits users to easily and clearly exercise their privacy rights.”

This statement is true only if a consumer’s sole goal is to completely opt out of all targeted advertising. But what if I prefer to see some targeted ads for products and services that interest me? Does GPC allow me to “easily and clearly” permit some targeting of ads that match my interests, while blocking the rest?

The answer is no. GPC is simply an on/off switch.

As a privacy lawyer, I am interested in what consumers really want from businesses that use their personal information for advertising. I’ve asked many people that question. Their answers indicate online privacy preferences range across a continuum, from restrictive (Don’t use my data for advertising at all”) to permissive (“If I have to see ads at all, they might as well be for stuff I’m interested in”).

This continuum means that to properly serve all consumers, GPCs need to be something more than an on/off switch. There has to be a better way. 

A better approach to privacy

GPCs are necessary because some US laws require businesses to honor them. Plus, there should be an option for consumers to stop all use of personal information for targeted advertising. The best benefit of GPCs is that they bypass the need for a consumer to set their privacy preferences on every website they visit, which is not feasible.

GPCs are insufficient, however, for consumers who prefer to tailor ads to their interests.

To illustrate how consumers might express their interests, I will use a couple of examples: music and performance cars. By tracking my browsing and use of automotive and music sites and apps, marketers can infer a profile of my interests and target ads to me on that basis. If I use GPCs on my browsers, I am opting out of all such tracking. This means that over time I will not receive personalized ads, even if I want to receive them from music and automotive businesses. I do not want this outcome.

Instead of an on/off switch, I want a dimmer. I want to have control over the sharing of my interests with marketers. When I am ready to buy a new car, I want to be able to activate my automotive interest. Once my new car is in my garage, I want the ability to turn it off.

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The problem with GPCs as currently implemented is they do not provide a way for consumers to inform marketers of their interests. Instead, GPCs only allow consumers to opt out of targeted advertising altogether. As a result, consumers who use GPCs will only receive nonpersonalized, often irrelevant ads. A better approach is one that would enable advertisers to deliver relevant ads to consumers for the products and services that interest them.

There is a better solution. A better GPC would offer consumers both:

1. The on/off switch: This setting is for consumers on the ends of the privacy continuum. It would meet the legal requirement for marketers to allow consumers to opt out of targeted advertising altogether.

2. The dimmer switch: For consumers that want tailored ads, this setting provides a way to inform marketers of their interests and receive ads related to those interests.

Examples of this concept already exist, most notably in the Google Topics settings, which allow Google account holders to tailor their interest categories.  

A more nuanced approach

What if GPC provided three options for targeted advertising?

  • PROHIBITED
  • PERMITTED without restrictions
  • PERMITTED BUT LIMITED: Targeted advertising is allowed for expressed interests only. If selected, this would offer a list of topics that relate to a user’s personal interests based on the IAB’s Audience Taxonomy or something similar.

This solution could be implemented as a technology-enabled standard by companies that make browsers, mobile devices and other devices like TV set-top and streaming devices. At most, a consumer would need to go through this selection process once on each browser and device. At best, once a consumer sets preferences, the choice to receive limited personalized advertising would be distributed through the advertising technology ecosystem to all companies that participate in it.

Along with this technical specification, the online advertising industry would have to agree to adhere to standards and rules regarding how to interpret a consumer’s expressed preferences. For example, since I expressed an interest in performance cars, does that mean advertisers of auto detailing services should be able to send me personalized ads? Setting these boundaries appropriately would be critical to building consumer trust in a limited personalized advertising preference.

Now is the time for the digital advertising industry to align around a consumer preference standard that offers nuanced control over the personalized advertising they receive. The GPC is necessary but insufficient. There is a better way if the industry chooses to support it.

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

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