Online Trackers Peel Back Curtain Before FTC Steps In

A collection of data miners and tracking companies is banding together to create a one-stop shop for consumers to see how ads are targeting them and how they can opt-out of databases if they choose. The move to self-regulate is a preemptive attempt to head off a possible “Do Not Track” registry that could limit the way consumers behavior online is tracked, something the FTC called for earlier this week.

When it launches in January, the Better Advertising Open Data Partnership will allow consumers to see interest-based data collected about them from eight firms including BlueKai, eXelate, 33Across, Lotame and others with more expected to join later. Google, (s goog) Yahoo (s yhoo) and many others, however, are not current partners. Consumers will have the ability to access the data directly from publisher sites and ads that include special icon prompts that lead to more information about interest-based advertising and opt-out options. When a consumer clicks on an “i” icon in the corner of an ad, they will see their interests and a list of companies that have collected data on them. Opting out may not stop the tracking but will prevent the information from being used to deliver personalized ads. 

Companies like BlueKai, Google and others have made some of this information available in the past. Data providers have previously worked up principles for self-regulation last year and provided consumers with a way to opt-out of behavioral advertising. The Open Data Partnership represents the biggest effort by data companies, ad networks and exchanges to work together to make their information available to users in a consistent manner, and it will give advertisers and publishers a way to be transparent in front of consumers and show they’re abiding in the principles of the Open Data Partnership.

The issue has gotten more notice lately as consumers have voiced concerns about the way tracking companies build profiles on them that allow advertisers to target them. Om has looked into information aggregators like Rapleaf, which have built extensive profiles on users based on publicly available data.

The ODP said none of the participating companies sell or distribute personally identifiable information, and no such information will be accessible as part of the program. The whole partnership speaks to the interest these companies have in getting out in front of any government intervention. They know behavioral user data is extremely valuable and leads to better results for advertisers. But they’re also realizing that they don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs by sitting on the sidelines and letting the government cripple them. So, while it may take more work to self-regulate and give users more options to opt-out, data miners are realizing it’s better to get involved than have the government do it for them.

Now will this be enough? I’m not quite sure. The fact that opting-out will only stop behavioral ad targeting and not the actual tracking means the data is still in play and could be used in other ways. Or maybe it can be subpoenaed in a court case. The point is, the data companies and advertisers are trying to do just enough to look like they’re responsible enough to be trusted. But it may not be enough to head off action by the government, especially if doesn’t involve many of the other data companies not involved so far.

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