/ Technology

Online behavioural ads – is the industry doing enough?

Finger pointing at mouse pointer

Online advertisers may not know you, but based on your browsing habits they have a pretty clear picture. The industry’s now noted our complaints and hopes to make targeted ads more transparent, but is it enough?

Two guys are enjoying a beer in a bar. A few feet along is a gorgeous brunette. One guy says to the other, ‘I reckon she’d let you buy her a drink’, the other, ‘What? How come?’ The guy nods knowingly, ‘I know a fair bit about her, she’s got a partner but could be tempted elsewhere – you’re definitely her type.’

‘Interesting’, says the other, ‘Tell me more.’

‘Well, where do I start? She’s just been to the South of France and she loves her French cuisine – wine and dine her at that little Primrose Hill bistro – it’s her favourite, not the mussels though, she’s allergic. Drop into the conversation that you’re a gardener, sing opera and love any rom-com and she’ll be all yours.’

‘Right, thanks – I’m off! Oh yeah? What’s her name?’

‘No idea! Why would I know that? That’s personal data!’

The joke’s on you

Yes. I’m a lawyer – so maybe I’m the only one smirking at the punchline! But I do think this joke illustrates the absurd double standards that are taking place in the online world.

All this information and more is being collected about you as you journey through the web – your likes and dislikes, online purchases, movie ratings, even where you go. This means that companies, like our guy at the bar, get to know your most in-depth personal information.

But as the data they collect is nameless and faceless, the industry’s claiming that it doesn’t fall within the definition of ‘personal data’. This means it’s beyond the grips of our Data Protection Act, which would otherwise control its collection, use and retention.

Behavioural advertising and you

Ad networks are the backbone of this lucrative and growing industry and they’re making a mint from your data. Knowing your ‘behavioural profile’ means that far more relevant ads could potentially come your way.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When we asked over 1,000 members of the public – 54% said they’d prefer to receive relevant ads online. However, we don’t think that this should be going on behind-the-scenes – you need to be given a choice about whether you want targeted ads or not. ‘Transparency and Choice’ is our mantra.

Is the industry doing enough?

After 10 years or so of serving up targeted ads to an unaware audience, the industry is finally beginning to get its act together.

Their answer is www.youronlinechoices.com. A site put together by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB, and note it’s industry funded) which gives consumers the opportunity to opt-out of those networks that have signed up to IAB’s ‘Good Practice Principles’. Any ads served by those networks should also have a logo in their corner which you can click on to opt-out.

It’s a step in the right direction but still a long way from providing full transparency and choice. The important questions seem to be left unanswered. Exactly what information is being collected? What data is it matched with? What is done with it? Who is it given to? How long is it kept for? What other technologies are used? And what networks haven’t signed up?

We’ve responded to IAB with our thoughts and I’ll be in Brussels next month highlighting our concerns to the European Commission. Do you think YourOnlineChoices.com is good enough, or should the industry do more to inform us and let us opt-out of behavioural advertising?


I don,t need dumb advertisements annoying me on my search pages i know what i want, they do nothing for me except chew up my gigs.There should be a way of opting out of the lot so we can work without ads flashing in our faces.I will never buy from an advertisements because the truth about there item is way less than what they say.Give me a break close them down.

Bob says:
4 June 2017

A (perhaps ‘the’) fundamental flaw in the approach taken by Youronlinechoices.com, is the requirement for an individual to opt-out, based on an implied presumption of opting-in.

What should happen is that signed-up advertisters should track a browser only upon positive evidence of confirmed consent for such tracking to occur.

On a technical level this means an identifier should be created, whether via cookie/browser fingerprint/pick-your-favourite-tracking-technique, only in response to positive indication of consent to tracking — and not the other way around. Absence of the relevant identifier(s) should be synonymous with absence of consent to track.

Instead, Youronlinechoices.com has, not so subtly, presented an ‘opt-out’ model and shifted the argument to details within this paradigm. This is wrong. I do not consent to tracking. I do not routinely save cookies. I certainly do not want to have to save your cookie (unique identifier) simply to inform you that I do not consent to being tracked.

Those who oppose, or constructively critique the solution from Youronlinechoices, must first step outside the presumed paradigm and address this ‘opt-in’ presumption, before tackling implementation details beyond this if they wish to get to the root of the matter.


Sad to say Bob while most of the tracking blockers I have showed up -youronlinechoices.com as a “clean ” website my latest one picked up a one Jscript which it blocked –and its an EU one . Having said that if I was you I would not click on any UK or USA newspaper websites they have an immense number of trackers now.

Eilis says:
27 March 2018

In light of the recent fallout over Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ, YourOnlineChoices seriously needs a kick in the pants overhaul. I tried to use YourOnlineChoices to opt-out of all companies. It is a bad joke. Over 60% of the companies can’t be switched off due to ‘technical difficulties’ (including Facebook, Google and Amazon). And many of the companies simply switch on again as soon as I refresh the page. I’ve followed instructions, adjusted browser preferences again and again. It simply does not work. Please join me and report this to EU Data Commisioner.


I was going to comment on cryptocurrencies below but just noticed Eilis,s post back in March. I don’t know how I missed it but by default in the small print you are accepting tailored advertising, why would anybody want to have anything to do with that website? I checked it out and I was surprised to find in addition to the jscripts that were trying to gather my data Microsoft was involved, now there is something unusual but after checking that out it turns out the MS Jscript is an APP that plugs into your system and watches you . As I don’t run Windows nor Wine on my Arch Linux it didn’t get far Microsoft Azure gives some insight to it gives graphs of your use of your browser /activity /telemetry/remote logging etc. I am so used to Google that this MS tracker app took me by surprise, first time I have come across it on a web-page not related to MS. I am looking at a web-page for clients of Microsoft and it goes into detail on the remote info gathering -IE – its selling itself to clients. So my advice, don’t have anything to do with that website not even out of curiosity especially if you run Windows 10 or any Windows.

Oksana says:
24 July 2018

There are some websites that give you an opportunity to earn some cryptocurrency if you watch the adds. I think it is ideal solution. If i need to spend my time and my device battery to watch some add I prefer to be rewarded. Otherwise I prefer not to watch adds.


Except cryptocurrency seems a flawed concept.