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Behavioural targeting at Westminster

The detractors of ISP-based behavioural targeting (BT) technologies such as Phorm would like to turn the clock back to a “horse-drawn" internet, "seizing on BT as a convenient excuse” for a return to an elitist web, according to i-level Founder Andrew Walmsley.

Opposing the motion “online advertising compromises privacy”, he spoke in defence of a free web at a Westminster Debating Group meeting last week.

For Walmsley, free ad-funded content has proved a great democratising force, bringing a new voice for the people in the shape of online communities, immeasurable benefits to consumers and transforming communications. Advertisers “would run a mile“, he said, if there was a risk in new technologies, particularly online.

The Network Advertising Initiative

However, this is not the first time there has been public concern over online privacy, said Revenue Science MD Jeremy Mason - such issues in fact date back to the advent of ad networks. The Network Advertising Initiative has worked hard to retain public trust, with a number of compromises along the way (for example, DoubleClick deciding not to match online and offline consumer data when it bought Abacus Direct.)

Our fears around these new technologies rest very much upon “being watched” as an individual user, but, as Mason pointed out, BT is all about targeting large groups with effective ad messages. There would be little merit for advertisers in targeting individuals.

In conclusion, the IPA’s Legal Director, Marina Palomba gave an apt summary of the evening’s debate, as the motion was overwhelmingly defeated. The real issue at stake is one of consent, the main sticking point not around privacy, but clarity.

There remains a lot of work to be done in educating and clarifying these technologies, as had been shown earlier in the debate, with several delegates expressing confusion about the exact nature of the risks and issues at stake.

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