Which? examines new online behavioural advertising codeIAB Code a positive step, but not a full solution

16 April 2011

IAB Code on online behavioural advertising

New IAB code aims to bring transparency to online behavioural advertising

The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) has launched a voluntary code that it hopes will address consumer concerns about online behavioural advertising, but Which? warns it’s not a panacea.

The self regulatory code – published yesterday - aims to ensure good practice in online behavioural advertising, so that web users are well informed about why they see certain ads and can opt out of receiving targeted ads should they choose.

What is online behavioural advertising?

Traditionally, online advertising have been context-specific – a travel ad on a holiday website, say.

Online behavioural advertising (OBA) is where online advertising networks track your online behaviour – a record of the sites you visit, say – to create a profile of your assumed interests. This can be used to target your computer with ads for things which advertisers believe are more likely to interest you.

So if you visit a series of holiday websites, for example, this can be recorded using internet tracking technologies such as cookies. You may then find yourself seeing ads for holidays, even on completely unrelated websites.

IAB code on OBA

Online behavioural advertising has caused understandable consumer concern and confusion, not least over what data is collected about web users and how it is used. Which? has been working with industry and regulators to improve consumer transparency and education.

The IAB voluntary code is a positive move, and Which? has been closely involved in discussions with industry to try and ensure the terms are clear, fair and unambiguous, but there's still some way to go. We were instrumental in nailing down one key part of the code – that a clickable logo should appear on every OBA ad to inform customers why they are seeing the ad and how to opt out of OBA.

The new IAB website – Your Online Choices – is also a step in the right direction, giving web users a single place to opt out of OBA from companies that have signed up to the code. But we have our reservations about its industry bias and somewhat selective transparency with what data is collected, when, how and who else it's passed to. To date, signatories include big players like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft.

Wriggleroom for ad networks

But the code is by no means perfect – not every online ad network has signed up, so even opting out of all the networks on Your Online Choices won't stop you seeing OBA. And Which? believes more work needs to be done to nail down how certain aspects of the code are going to work in practice, as Which? lawyer Georgina Nelson outlines:

'We presented our concerns with the Code to the IAB and the European Commission in March. While some our feedback has been acted upon, there are still some slippery definitions which give ad networks real wriggleroom for compliance. 

'The devil will also be in the detail – how big will the ad logo be? What words will accompany it? And will consumers really understand what it all means? We'll have to wait and see.'

Find out more about the new IAB code and join the privacy debate on Which? Conversation.

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