When we started this blog back in September, we were looking to spark a conversation about how Internet users globally are being put at risk by the current lack of actionable online privacy measures. We’ve made it a main objective to track all news in this space and have welcomed feedback from industry thought-leaders, consumers, advertisers and even the ISPs themselves — and thought we’d share a recap of what we thought were the most important issues during the second half of 2008, to help better understand what will happen in 2009.
From Our Own Backyard to Overseas, Behavioral Tracking Finds a Home
Perhaps the biggest issue of 2008 was the rampant move toward behavioral targeting by ISPs. While this issue seen action from established companies like Tacoda and Revenue Science for years — NebuAd, Phorm and other companies new to the scene stirred up controversy.
The fire sparked in June when Charter Communications, one of the largest providers of cable-based broadband service in the U.S., “backed off of a plan to insert advertisements onto Web pages — using a company called NebuAd — based on its users’ Web-surfing habits after privacy advocates called the program an ‘attack on users.’ This was only the beginning of the blaze.
Congress got word of this controversial functionality and called out NebuAd to change its privacy notification features to allow customers to opt-in voluntarily rather than have to opt-out of the service (Around the same time, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon all agreed to get the permission of users before performing behavioral ad tracking in the future). To make a long story short, NebuAd essentially shut down on American grounds — even the CEO stepped down following congressional scrutiny. However, this has not stopped the behavioral technology overseas.
Last month, Phorm, a company that offers the technology similar to NebuAd, ended its trials with ISP British Telecom (BT) and planned beginning steps to roll out the technology across the entire network. NebuAd is following suit and hopes to get the ball rolling again on foreign soil. However, it still has loose ends to tie up in the US, particularly a lawsuit filed by 15 angry Web users against the ad targeting enterprise and the six ISPs that utilized the company’s technology without user consent.
In Other News…
Privacy Cops didn’t limit the discussion to just behavioral targeting but pushed to include all thoughts about privacy, and even had some news of our own to announce.
- Throughout 2008, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft competed to lower their data retention periods and we’re hoping the trend continues to no retention whatsoever. Yahoo’s most recent announcement to only hold data for 90 days trumped Google’s September promise to hold it for six months, and Microsoft said it would match Yahoo’s three month period if the other two giants did so as well.
- Google Street View was another ongoing story we covered as it continued its trip around the world, opening in New Zealand, France and other countries. Still, many countries are vehemently opposed to the technology, namely Japan and this Germany town. We’ll see how much footage the Google cars can capture in 2009.
- In Australia, a colossal infringement on privacy rights was announced in October. Australia became the first democratic nation to filter Internet content via deep packet inspection (DPI). Under the government’s $125.8 million Plan for Cyber-Safety, it was announced that Australians would not be able to opt-out of the censorship but rather have the option to chose between two blacklists: one that blocks content inappropriate for children, and one that blocks illegal material. Preliminary trials showed that even the best Internet content filters would block approximately 10,000 pages (out of one million) incorrectly.
- One of our biggest accomplishments in 2008 was to announce the configuration of our new security product, Hotspot Shield for iPhone. Hotspot Shield was the first free security iPhone application to keep Internet sessions 100% secure and anonymous, and our iPhone application is just another platform to extend our participation into the mobile security conversation (which we believe will become a hot topic in 2009).
So What’s Next for 2009?
Our hope is that 2009 brings a sense of urgency to the realm of consumer privacy online. Moreover, we would like to see Internet users valued for the information they provide to third-party companies and ultimately, advertisers. Based on developments already making headlines, we expect a wild ride this year in the privacy world.
Phorm is already researching using financial incentives to encourage users to sign up to its ad-targeting technology. Consumer advocacy groups are on the horn scrutinizing Google’s mobile advertising practices that may violate children, adolescent and other consumer privacy laws. Additionally, four groups representing ad networks, portals, publishers, ISPs, and ad agencies have joined forces to convince Congress that the industry is capable of policing itself rather than have government step in and regulate behavioral targeting.
We’re only two weeks into 2009 and battles are beginning. We’ll continue to provide you commentary on the action every step of the way.