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AdChoices program reports higher compliance, but user understanding lags

The AdChoices program offers clearer notice when people’s behaviour is being tracked online for advertising purposes and offers opt-out mechanisms for those ads.

Advertisers know that you hate them.

Ads interrupt or add clutter to the media content – articles, videos, photos of adorable animals – that people actually want to see. And a network of tracking systems watch what people do online to target ads to them, sometimes raising privacy concerns. But those ads also provide the funding needed to make media in the first place, including most of what we see on the Internet.

So, in a bid to convince Web users that those ads are worth seeing, a global industry coalition has banded together to create the AdChoices program, which offers clearer notice when people's behaviour is being tracked online for advertising purposes, and offering opt-out mechanisms for those ads. Canada joined the effort, under the Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada (DAAC), in 2013.

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On Wednesday, the self-regulatory group Advertising Standards Canada reported that the program is beginning to work better than it did last year, when the ASC found that a majority of participants were still not offering consumers control over whether they were tracked and whether ads were targeted to them.

In 2016, 59 per cent of the 39 participating websites in Canada offered notices about tracking and targeted advertising on their sites, and offered opt-outs to visitors. In comparison, such compliance was in the single digits in 2015. And 80 per cent of ad tech companies such as ad networks and data brokers who participate in the program gave similar notices and opt-out mechanisms – also a reversal from the year before when a majority were not compliant. The ASC tested opt-out procedures on 20 popular websites visited by Canadians to ensure that targeted ads did indeed stop when users chose that option.

"Participants are better at providing transparency and control – which is really important to privacy considerations," said Peter White, senior vice-president and director of the AdChoices program at the ASC.

But understanding of the program among consumers is still an issue. While more people are aware of the AdChoices program through its logo – a blue triangle with an "i" inside it that appears in the corner of many online ads – complaints that came through the program largely had nothing to do with targeted advertising at all.

ASC received roughly double the complaints last year through the AdChoices program compared with 2015: 283 complaints in total, up from 142.

However, 77 per cent of those complaints were about ads that were not targeted to those consumers based on data collection: many people simply complained that they did not want to see ads, or objected to the ad's content. On top of that number, a further 15 per cent of complaints were not pursued because they were generated outside of the Canadian jurisdiction, or did not provide enough information for further examination. Only 8 per cent of complaints had to do with targeted ads, most of them asserting that opt-outs did not work: in the majority of those cases, it turned out that people incorrectly believed that the program's opt-outs would prevent them from seeing any ads online.

"That's just not the reality of the economics of the Internet at the moment," Mr. White said.

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However, the industry has work to do to maintain those economics in the face of challenges such as the growth in use of ad-blocking software. The hope is that by making people more aware of the AdChoices program, and better explaining how they are tracked for the purposes of targeted ads, the industry can build trust with consumers.

"The hope is that the AdChoices icon would become meaningful to consumers, that they would be aware of what it is," Mr. White said. "It's difficult, on websites, to carry all the words that are needed to fully explain what's going on [with tracking and targeting]. … If users were to click on that icon, they always find themselves somewhere that tries to explain it."

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About the Author
Media and Marketing Reporter

Susan covers marketing and media for Report on Business. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2009, Susan worked as a freelance reporter contributing to the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and other publications, as well as CBC Radio's Dispatches and Search Engine. She has a Masters degree in journalism from Carleton University. More

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