Behavioural ad concerns should be countered quickly

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One raft of online privacy laws is apparently not enough for some members of parliament. A little over a month since EU legislation on tracking internet users’ behaviour came into force, a cross-party group of 14 MPs has signed an early day motion in the House of Commons criticising the lack of safeguards for consumers’ data on the internet.

The specific case rousing their suspicions is the database being built by advertising group WPP, which claims to have profiles of half a billion internet users worldwide, including almost all of the UK population. That boast will pique the interest of many an online advertiser, but it is unlikely to chime with popular opinion.

Early day motions almost never amount to anything, and this one only has limited support from a few backbenchers with little influence over policy. But data-related stories have a habit of snowballing, especially when it sounds like one company knows the intimate personal details of everyone in Britain.

That is not quite accurate, of course, and the existing legislation already requires browsing data that is collected to be anonymised so individuals are not identifiable. WPP’s database, administered by its newly launched subsidiary Xaxis, does however hold a substantial amount of demographic, geographic, financial and purchase details. It will provide clients with a means of delivering relevant ads to their target audiences.

The MPs’ concerns are perhaps a symptom of the uncertainty that continues to hang around the application of online behavioural advertising laws. Though these are now in effect, advertisers still have a grace period to work out how to give web users the option to decline these ads and to refuse permission for their browsing habits to be tracked.

That does not mean the online ad industry should be trying to eke out whatever time it can before complying with the law, however. The quicker it can establish best practice in online privacy, the more reassured politicians and the public are likely to be that databases like WPP’s are not nefarious inventions for invading our private lives.

These 14 MPs are hardly the most powerful politicians in the land, and hopefully many of their criticisms will be addressed by measures the ad industry is already taking. But they should still be taken seriously.

The best way to alleviate their worries is to move quickly and roll out tools that let web users take control of what data they share. The sooner people get used to using them, the sooner they will become more comfortable interacting with behavioural ads.

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