Frequently Asked Questions about Online Behavioural Advertising

October 2011

Frequently Asked Questions

What is behavioural advertising?

Behavioural advertising involves tracking consumers’ online activities over time, in order to deliver advertisements that are targeted to their inferred interests. Behavioural advertisers use data derived from online tracking to build user profiles, determine categories of user interests, and show ads based on demographics and assumptions about user interests. Depending on the advertiser, interest categories can be broad or specific. Interest categories are used to select and deliver advertisements that the advertiser has defined as relevant to those categories.

Several terms are used when talking about online advertising: demographically targeted, location, behavioural, interest-based advertising. These are all variations on behavioural advertising.

What information can be collected?

The types of information that can be collected in the context of behavioural advertising include: Internet Protocol (IP) addresses; pages visited (on a single website or across sites); length of time spent on pages; advertisements viewed; articles read; purchases made; search terms or other information entered on a site; user preferences such as language and web browser type; and operating system. Geographical location can also be extracted through IP addresses (on the web) or the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) when using mobile communications devices.

Who’s in the business of online behavioural advertising?

There are typically three main players in the behavioural advertising model: websites, advertisers and ad networks.

Simply put, websites need money to operate, advertisers want to sell products, and ad networks help deliver advertisements to a target audience of website visitors. Moreover, a few very large advertising companies are able to broadly track user behaviour across the Internet. Many of these advertising networks are owned by the same companies that provide a number of web-based services and have a direct relationship with users. This means that certain companies, in their various capacities, have multiple points of access to their users, allowing them to collect information about them. They can then leverage the knowledge acquired to further target users.

Are there benefits to behavioural advertising?

Certain businesses, such as media organizations, would ordinarily charge for their product for example, the news. Many, however, are able to give their content away for free because they generate revenues through online ads.

One of the main benefits of behavioural advertising, therefore, is that consumers do not have to pay for much of the information and services they obtain on the Internet.
Other benefits for individuals include recommendations for products and services and website customization.

Some individuals also say they prefer to receive information that is relevant to their personal interests. This could include specific recommendations for products and services they might be interested in purchasing, and website customization to their individual tastes.

Should I be concerned about behavioural advertising?

According to a 2009 survey by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, nearly three-quarters of respondents were uncomfortable with tracking-based advertising.Footnote 1 Another study conducted on behalf of the Canadian Marketing Association noted that half of Canadians were “somewhat uncomfortable” with marketers using browsing information to serve more relevant ads.Footnote 2

Tracking for behavioural advertising tends to be done in a way that is largely invisible. This raises questions about your ability to control the flow of your personal information: if you don’t know you are being tracked, how can you decide where to let your personal information go?

Other risks include the use of potentially inaccurate data affecting your online experiences. If you don’t know you are being tracked, you don’t know what data is being collected about you and you don’t know whether that data is accurate or not. Therefore, you may not be able to challenge the accuracy of the information and ask for it to be corrected.

Are advertisers allowed to track my personal information as they please?

Canada’s federal private-sector privacy law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) defines personal information as “information about an identifiable individual.” If online data relates to you, and there is a serious possibility that you can be identified through such data, advertisers can only collect, use or disclose such information in accordance with PIPEDA. This means that online advertisers can only track your personal information if you are made aware of the tracking, of the purpose of the tracking and you agree to it.

Well, don’t I get a say about being tracked for advertising purposes?

Organizations are required to ensure that purposes for which they intend to collect, use and disclose your personal information, are identified and communicated to you. And yes, organizations are required to obtain your informed consent to collect, use and disclose your personal information for that identified purpose.

This has usually been done through the terms of service which explain what kind of data is being collected, why it is being collected, how it will be used and whether it will be shared with other organizations – which are also called third parties. Therefore, it is advisable to read the terms of service before entering into a relationship with an online business or service so as to get a better grasp of what happens to your data. In some cases, you can specifically refuse that your personal information be shared with third parties for advertising purposes. In other cases, you may not be presented with choices other than to accept the terms of service or not use the service at all.

When it comes to third parties that track users across the web (via third-party cookies or other means), all parties – web site operators and the third party advertising networks that use those cookies – have a part to play in ensuring that Internet users consent both to the tracking and to how the information will be used and possibly disclosed. There are a number of initiatives currently under way that attempt to address this issue. The interactive advertising industry has been promoting an option that allows users to easily obtain information about behavioural advertising, with the opportunity to opt out of such advertising through the use of a permanent cookie. Another initiative involves improving browser settings to allow users to more easily communicate their preference not to be tracked. These are detailed below.

What can I do if I don’t want to be tracked for advertising purposes?

There are some measures you can take to minimize the extent to which your online activities are tracked for advertising purposes.

Web browsers allow you to adjust your settings to block cookies. However, if you configure your browser to delete stored cookies, this often only clears traditional cookies, without affecting other types of tracking technology, such as super cookies and beacons. For more information on cookies and tracking, please see our Fact Sheet, Cookies - Following the Crumbs.

Another option is to use the “private browsing mode” offered by some browsers. This usually deletes web cookies, but other types of tracking technologies can still remain stored during these private browsing sessions. In order to clear all the different forms of tracking technologies, you generally have to install and use special tools in your browser. You can also visit the http://donottrack.us website for more information on how you can prevent tracking. Here too you will have to keep in mind that this is a partial solution, since not all third parties respect the “do not track” header.

You can go on Google’s Ad Preferences or on Yahoo!’s privacy policy page and opt out of what is called interest-based advertising. This will disable the cookies used by Google and Yahoo!. Your browser will no longer be associated with inferred demographic and interest categories. This option also allows you to select which categories of advertisements you would like to see should you wish to limit behavioural advertising but not opt out of it altogether. However, this option only works for ads served through Google and Yahoo!.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau Canada has recently released its Self-Regulation Framework For Online Behavioural Advertising, which is currently being implemented by the Canadian online advertising, marketing, publishers industry. It will provide you with both a notice – through an icon or text –and a one-click access to opt-out of tracking and behavioural advertising. You will find more information on the subject on the Interactive Advertising Bureau website at http://www.iabcanada.com.

For more information, please see Behavioural Advertising.

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