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June 18, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Microsoft, Yahoo and data tracking for political ads

(This story ran in the print edition of The Seattle Times June 17, 2012. – Janet I. Tu)

Do online ads targeted directly at you make your online life easier or does it creep you out?

What if the ad is from a political campaign?

Questions about data tracking and personal privacy have been roiling in recent years with the rise of online activites and advertising and technologies that can collect and sort vast amounts of data.

More recently, the issue of how all that applies to political campaigns has gained prominence. Some groups say targeted online political ads are no different than mailings from political campaigns. Other see sublte — and far-reaching — dangers when such digital advertising tools are used by political campaigns.

Last week, investigative journalism organization Pro Publica published a report saying that Microsoft and Yahoo are selling to political campaigns the ability to target online ads.

The online report says the companies provide users’ names, Zip codes and other information that users provide when they register for services such as free email.

The companies don’t notify users that their information is being used for political targeting, Pro Publica notes.

It’s certainly not new for political campaigns to target certain voters via methods such as direct mail.

And it’s pretty common business practice now for companies to place online ads specifically tailored to the user.

But it’s combining the two that seems to be raising anew the questions of where privacy boundaries in online advertising should lie.

“Political advertising is finally catching up in the digital space,” said Mike Zaneis, senior vice president and general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), made up of more than 500 media and tech companies that sell online advertising.

Zaneis believes “there’s nothing inherently oversensitive about [a person’s] political interests” and that, indeed, the information to be gleaned collected from a cookie dropped into your browser can be less than that received by a campaign doing a direct mailing.

He says political campaigns should be able to abide by the same self-regulatory programs that allow users to opt out of tracking that businesses abide by.

Stu Ingis, general counsel of the Digital Advertising Association (DAA), contends that for people running for public office, “being able to target audiences that are likely to support their position … is the ultimate in democracy and First Amendment protections. End of story.”

But Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, thinks there’s harm to democracy that can result from targeted advertising involving political campaigns.

“It can give rise to a candidate’s generating deceptive advertising,” he says, “which can have consequences that are much further reaching than just a routine marketing advertisement.”

He gives this example: Say a political campaign finds out you lean liberal and are particularly passionate about protecting the environment. The campaign might then, in an ad, position its generally conservative candidate who’s voted in favor of some environmental policies, as being in favor of your views on environmentalism.

“The person sees what they think is a very general ad, but is actually a targeted ad designed to sway your thoughts on an issue,” Stephens said.

The Privacy Rights Clearninghouse’s position, he says, is that targeted marketing of any kind should be opt in, rather than opt out.

Both Microsoft and Yahoo said they “do not share their users’ personal information directly with the campaigns,” according to the Pro Publica article. “Both companies also said they do not see the campaigns’ political data, because the match of voter names and registration data is done by a third company. They say the matching is done to target groups of similar voters, and not named individuals.”

Microsoft and Yahoo told Pro Publica that users can opt out of targeted ads.

“We offer targeted advertising services to customers, including political campaigns from both parties,” Microsoft said in a statement. “We want to be clear, however, that we use only data that does not personally identify individual consumers to select which online ads are delivered to the user.”

Yahoo did not respond to a request for comment.

That Microsoft is selling the ability to target such political ads is ironic, given that it has created a furor in recent days over its decision to ship Internet Explorer 10 with the “Do Not Track” option turned on by default.

“We believe that consumers should have more control over how information about their online behavior is tracked, shared and used,” Microsoft’s Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch said.

That decision angered the ad industry.

Even the standards group setting specifications for what “Do Not Track” means had issued draft specs saying the decision to turn on “Do Not Track” should be left to the end user, not the company issuing the browser.

Adding to the irony: Microsoft’s own ad network doesn’t comply with “Do Not Track,” though the company says that stance is under discussion.



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The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only, and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.

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