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What communications pros need to understand about the online privacy debate

Photo courtesy of rpongsaj via Flickr

I can’t seem to figure out why Facebook thinks I might want to see the new Natalie Portman/Ashton Kutcher vehicle, No Strings Attached. But there it is, a Facebook advertisement for the film, inviting me to watch the trailer alongside my news feed, over and over.

Maybe I just fit the target age demographic for the advertising campaign. When you buy advertising on Facebook, you can specify an age range for people who will be shown the ad. Or maybe one of the bands I list as an interest on the Info page of my profile is on the movie’s soundtrack. They don’t know about my anonymous Natalie Portman photo blog, do they? I need to take that down.

These questions are increasingly on the minds not just of communications professionals, but the Web-using public at large.

When public relations pros first began using sites like Facebook and Twitter to spread their messages a few years ago, most online social platforms were just beginning to figure out their advertising programs. Today, as public relations professionals begin to work more closely with marketing teams to develop online campaigns, they’re increasingly coordinating their organic outreach with programs like Promoted Tweets and Facebook advertising, which in turn are coordinated with broader online and mobile advertising campaigns. What’s fascinating is, just as many public relations pros are exploring the world of online advertising for the first time, so are regulators. That’s why we may be on the cusp of a sea change in online advertising brought about by new regulation.

Sure, PR activities have been coordinated with advertising campaigns for as long as PR and advertising have coexisted. But in recent months, as the media’s attention has turned to online privacy through investigations such as the Wall Street Journal’s What They Know series, many PR pros have begun to ask how online privacy issues, particularly with regard to behaviorally targeted advertising, impact the work they’re doing online.

While many people find targeted Facebook ads a bit creepy, regulators are more concerned about the kind of behavioral targeting that online advertising networks use to track your activity across multiple Web sites. This kind of tracking encompasses many tactics, most of which are poorly understood by both communications pros and the public at large. They include dropping a cookie on your Web browser or tracking your device’s IP address for the purpose of recording your clickstream, or the list of sites you’ve visited.

The profile of you that an ad network creates to house its data about you can be used to determine whether to display a particular ad for you or not. A Web site or advertising network that engages in behavioral targeting may also store other data about you alongside your clickstream, such as the queries you’ve typed into Google. Many people who treat the Google search box as a trusted confidant by asking it personal questions about health, financial and legal matters might want to try Google’s encrypted search, launched in May 2010, which guards your queries from third parties such as Internet service providers. Google also enables users to opt out of the cookie used for behavioral tracking in its advertising products.

The Federal Trade Commission is accepting public comment until January 31 on a proposed requirement that Web sites and ad networks allow users to block behavioral targeting through a standardized “do not track” mechanism [updated: Google and Mozilla today announced new privacy features in the Chrome and Firefox browsers that will broadcast a “do not track” signal as you browse]. The Interactive Advertising Bureau has argued that this move could cripple the online advertising business, much as the National Do Not Call Registry began to chip away at the telemarketing industry after its implementation in 2004. At the same time, the Department of Commerce is proposing a policy framework to allow online advertisers to regulate themselves [PDF].

What do you think? As an Internet user, are you concerned about behavioral targeting? Would regulation impact the way you plan your campaigns? Once you’re done searching for my Natalie Portman photo blog, share your thoughts in the comments.

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