/ 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?


Behavioural advertising should be illegal unless the computer user has chosen to take part. Having to opt out is not good enough.

I used the link provided above and tried to opt out from Microsoft advertising. That failed, despite several attempts. Not only would I never opt in to receive Microsoft advertising, but I can’t opt out (unless I find and delete their cookie). It’s disgraceful.

Xavier says:
12 January 2016

5 years later and it’s still not working

ThatguyP says:
4 April 2018

2 years after that and its still not working

Sep 2018 – and YourOnlineChoices does not work.
Every few weeks I go back and find that several tracking companies have been switched on again.
Today, of 60 trackers switched back on !!!

Presumably some new websites visited have reset the previous “off” – probably with “presumed consent”.

Plenty of websites say “If you continue to use this site, your consent is assumed” – although often this is in a small panel at the bottom, not immediately obvious.

Many of these sites make it very hard to opt out – esp. if they point to 3rd Party websites.
Some of these list over 150 tracking companies – that have to be switched individually – in a tiny window with only 5 visible per view.

Teresa Green says:
21 December 2019

December 2019 and STILL I can’t turn off Microsoft cookies. The fact they have unlimited funds and influence will have nothing to do with it though.

Henry Modot says:
18 March 2020

March 2020. It still does not work. This is just a scam just to tire out anyone wanting to opt out. Don’t waste your time

Sean says:
5 April 2021

10 years later, and still not working

Youronlinechoices is a good start but until the site names and shames those that aren’t making it easy and transparent for people to opt-out of OBA I believe it’s flawed.
The simple truth is that finding out what information is being collected about you, personally identifiable or not, is currently way beyond the scope of the average consumer, or even computer expert.

Nick Stringer, IAB says:
18 February 2011

Transparency and choice is our mantra too. However, this really only tells half the story about industry’s goal to achieve this. The website – http://www.youronlinechoices.com – is being rolled out across all EU markets (so available in many different languages) to support a new ‘icon’ (similar to the recycling icon we all know) that the consumer will see in all display ads that use this technique. Clicking on the icon will provide the consumer with more information about data collection and how that person can manage or control his / her preferences. Which? itself supports this approach, as outlined in an article in May 2010. Industry will respond to the comments Which? has made on the website – many of which are happening as we make it pan-European. Each page on the site has a feedback button so we welcome all thoughts and comments to help us make the site as easily understandable and helpful as possible.

I agree that youronlinechoices is a good start but one thing that strikes me is that it uses a cookie-based approach. If I clear my cookies frequently then surely I’ll have to keep going back to youronlinechoices to opt-out again. This isn’t very practical and it’s also not made clear on the website.

Nick Stringer, IAB says:
18 February 2011

It’s a good point Alice. This will be made clear on the website and we are looking into a persistent solution. There are many open sourced solutions on the market.

Thanks for the clarification Nick- it would be a good step if a persistent opt-out could be built into the system.

Will the site also highlight how some of the companies that are signed up are still collecting user data but just not serving targeted ads?

Why should I have to opt out when I don’t want something in the first place?

I have used the telephone preference service and the mailing preference service, but I still get unsolicited mail and phone calls. Unsolicited mail is a huge waste of resources and cost to the consumer. Unsolicited phone calls are an annoying nuisance.

Opt out does not work well, so why don’t we just choose to receive information we want, a system that works well in my experience.

Christian says:
18 February 2011

I agree with Alice, but its not just the effort – you have to be relatively well informed and web-savy to understand and then work through these issues which presumably a decent chunk of the population are not. For the average, not particularly engaged, consumer, visibility and simplicity is key. At the moment it takes knowledge and effort to make the choices and most people won’t have the time or inclination to do it. Tme for Which to drive this for the silent majority?

Tim G says:
22 February 2011

An interesting piece. Most consumers, I guess, have no idea that this sort of thing is going on. Cookies? Something to eat! Is there any merit in reviewing the Data Protection Act so that the definition of personal data is changed to give the consumer better protection?

Robert B says:
20 March 2011

Youronlinechoices is a small, timid step in roughly the right direction.

First of all, it tries to present itself as an independent source of consumer information, when in fact it’s funded by the advertisers and website owners. So the content is laughably one-sided in places. The guide to behavioural advertising dodges most of the major questions and debates. It tells me that it’s important for me to understand “why [behavioural advertising] is beneficial” – with no hint of a debate around how beneficial it is, who it benefits and who decides all this. No questions are raised, either, about the definition of personally identifiable information or the efficacy of the law.

Secondly, it’s not a triumph of straightforward presentation – I strongly suspect that people who make ads for a living could do a much better job if they really wanted to.

Thirdly, the opt-out mechanism itself is pretty clunky: it might stop working if you delete your cookies, and it doesn’t work for sites you don’t already have cookies from.

So it’s better than nothing, but the advertisers need to do an awful lot more, or they’ll only have themselves to blame when they face a backlash from consumers and regulators.

Jim McGann says:
25 March 2011

Tim G – the Data Protection Act (or rather than European Directive 95/46/EC) doesn’t need changing to cover online behavioural advertising – it’s already covered, despite what the industry says. Georgina’s example gets across very well why the profiles used to target OBA are personal data. The ICO make clear in their Personal Information Online code of practice:

“In the Information Commissioner’s view, personal data is being processed where information is collected and analysed with the intention of distinguishing one individual from another and to take a
particular action in respect of an individual. This can take place even if no obvious identifiers, such as names or addresses, are held.”

The industry argument tends to be something like this: We don’t create a profile of you. All we do is allocate your computer to a series of interest groups. So the picture would look something like this:

Picture 1

Group: SUV lovers
Members: #194440576; #224385009; #111564875; #182000972 etc.

Group: Sports enthusiasts
Members: #448012339; #111093049; #224385009; #989776142, etc.

Group: Prospective property buyers
Members: #309882399; #172883998; #097666121; #224385009, etc.

… and so on. But hang on – this isn’t the only way this information can be represented. In fact, this is just one way round. Computer #224385009 is actually in all the above groups. So we can just invert the picture and look at it like this:

Picture 2

Member: #224385009
Groups: SUV lovers; Sports enthusiasts; Prospective property buyers, etc.

And of course you can do this with all the other members too – they’ll all be in more than one group given enough web surfing time. The way OBA works is by saving to your unique cookie a series of further identifiers for the groups you’re a member of. The industry says: “All we’re doing is allocating you to a series of groups. We’re not looking at *you*; we’re just interested in the group.” But invert the picture and the consumer can say: “What you’re doing is allocating a series of groups to me. Of course you’re looking at me; that’s how you know what ads to serve to me.” It’s just two different ways of looking at exactly the same thing. The main industry argument that it isn’t personal data is just based on privileged one representation of the facts over another equally legitimate representation.

(Which leaves them with just the “But we don’t know your name!” argument.)

Georginas POV is really way out. The Media industry provides free content for all. Obviously they need to make money to survive, and I’ll bet you – Georgina Nelson – is not willing to pay subscriptions to find phonenumbers, read the TV programme, see news etc.? All companies need to make money, and to do so they all need to market themselves. If they die you won’t have a job, no money and your children will starve.

Xavier says:
12 January 2016

Oh the poor marketing companies…we so poor, please sir please, help us, help us with your data, ohhh the humanity.

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.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

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.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

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.

Gero Jahns says:
7 April 2020

I aree fully to
Henry Modot says:
18 March 2020

March 2020. It still does not work. This is just a scam just to tire out anyone wanting to opt out. Don’t waste your time

Mike says:
13 April 2020

It doesn’t work. It “doesn’t work” so reliably that its reasonable to assume that its not supposed to work.
The solution, however, is in our hands:
NEVER buy from a company that gives you unwanted advertising.
If you like a product, ALWAYS by it from a company that behaves in your best interests.
If everyone adopts this approach the problem will go away.