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For privacy advocates, 2011 was supposed to be a big year. Many expected it to mark the start of a regulatory trend that would put the squeeze on behavioral marketers who track online consumers.
From proposed legislation that would curtail cookie-based targeting—the practice of dropping cookies onto browsers to both track and target online political ads to users—to requiring consumers to “opt-in” to online targeting and data collection practices, marketers began the year wary.
For now, though, they’re breathing a temporary sigh of relief. We’ve seen no shortage of legislation introduced on both the federal and state level aimed at curtailing data collection and behavioral targeting practices, but the proposals have gone nowhere—at least in Congress. Of the more than half a dozen bills introduced in either the House or Senate that aim to regulate at least some form of online behavioral targeting, not a single one has come close to a vote. Several bills haven’t even been granted a hearing.
“This has actually proven to be a much heavier lift than a lot of privacy advocates really thought it would,” explains Michael Zaneis, vice president at the Interactive Advertising Bureau or IAB. The IAB is an industry group that promotes online advertising and counts more than 500 media and technology companies among its members. Zaneis hosts regular conference calls with IAB members, updating them on the status of relevant legislation at the state and federal level.
“We’re really at the very early stages of any legislative movement,” says Zaneis, who thinks the long term prospects for Do Not Track “may have actually dimmed a bit” over the past year.
It’s precisely the right time for folks in the political consulting industry—many of whom are increasingly worried about what impact Do Not Track efforts could have on firms that specialize in online ad targeting—to start weighing in. The issue tops the agenda list for the newly-formed Technology Committee of the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC).
Co-chaired by Brian Franklin of Impact Politics and Becki Donatelli of Campaign Solutions, the committee intends to make itself a part of any policy discussions on Capitol Hill that could restrict the ability of digital strategists to advertise effectively for candidates. That includes reaching out to lawmakers and supporting the IAB’s self-regulatory regime.
“You have to strike a balance between providing people the privacy they expect and the unintended consequences of legislation that could really interfere with the ability to deliver relevant ads to people,” says Franklin. “We should be a part of striking that balance.”
While lobbyists from Google and Facebook descend on Capitol Hill as privacy battles steal the media spotlight, the political industry faces some key questions all its own. First, should Do Not Track legislation move forward, will campaigns get an opt-out much like they do when it comes to automated calls? And second, will privacy concerns blunt the willingness of campaigns to use behavioral targeting? Or will increasingly privacy-conscious Internet users impact its effectiveness?
“People involved in political advertising are now in the same boat as the consumer advertisers,” says Zaneis. “The privacy concerns are front and center.”