Ed Felten at the “From Mad Men to Mad Bots” conference at Yale ISP

Last week I had the opportunity attend the Yale Information Society Project conference: From Mad Men to Mad Bots: Advertising in the Digital Age. It was a good event and a great opportunity to get some interesting insights on what’s happening in the digital advertising industry.

The event kicked off with a discussion with Ed Felten of the FTC. Felten started with a description of behavioral advertising and how it differs from contextual advertising. The take away from his comments focused on the role of data in order to connect the dots around user behavior in order to effectively target content.

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When asked if we should be worried about persistent tracking Felten said yes, that this kind of tracking could lead to the creation of detailed files of very revealing data about health issues, family problems, employment and more. Even if people are comfortable seeing behaviorally targeted ads, he continued, the tracking behind it carries risks.

His reasoning was interesting – certainly there’s the risk that information could be used for other purposes (from considering people for employment to setting health insurance rates) but there’s also the possibility of people looking over their shoulders and avoiding sites or types of content that could reflect poorly on them.

And there’s also the risk of an “Exxon Valdez” spill of private data. This could come about in any number of ways – from a security breach to the unscrupulous sale of information. However such a spill might occur the result would be messy to say the least.

Felten made the point that while there’s always focus on big concerns there are plenty of smaller harms that are difficult to avert. Unfortunately, according to Felten, many people don’t realize they’re being tracked or what to do about it. The result is confusion. Everyone agrees it would be better if there were more clarity but there’s no consensus on how to make that happen.

While there are things people can do – cookie controls, browser selection and extensions or avoiding certain kinds of sites – none, in Felten’s eyes, offers full protection.

One reason Felten thinks this ability to control access is so critical is that data is rapidly being amassed that can be connected to a specific individual. Anonymity, he explained, is only a profile that hasn’t been connected to a real person . . . yet.

The industry recognizes the problems and is working on self-regulation in the online ad space. Are new laws needed? Not necessarily. Felten believes it’s possible to reach a point where consumers can be comfortable without new legislation. He thinks the industry can go further than they have but that if over time consumer concerns aren’t addressed we may find ourselves in a situation were new laws are put in place.

The desired outcome is for consumers’ needs and concerns to be adequately addressed. The specific mechanisms are less important.

All-in-all it was an interesting discussion. Felten raised plenty of areas for concern but also seemed to have faith that everyone involved – consumers, Congress, regulators and the industry – had some sense of the issue and were working – perhaps clumsily at times – toward a solution.

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