Privacy and Security TidBits

EU Article 29 Working Party Decrees Strict Opt-In Standards for Behavioral Advertising Data Collection

by Bret Cohen

On June 24, the Article 29 Working Party established by the 1995 European Directive on Data Protection published an opinion declaring that online advertisers who want to target ads by tracking consumers’ surfing habits must obtain the consumers’ affirmative opt-in consent to such data collection.At the same time, the Working Party lauded certain privacy-enhancing practices incorporated into behavioral advertising today and it encouraged industry to develop technologies to comply with the framework and “to exchange views” with the Working Party on the use of such technologies.

Behavioral Advertising is Regulated in the EU by Two Primary Sources

The Working Party explained that behavioral advertising ecosystem is regulated in the EU by two primary sources. The first is Article 5(3) of EU Directive 2002/58 (the ePrivacy Directive) that requires that organizations wishing to store or access information on an individual’s computer to obtain the consent of the individual before doing so. The e-Privacy Directive is to be implemented in the national laws of EU member states law by June 2011.

The Opinion explained that since behavioral advertising relies on the placement of cookies (small data files) on individuals’ computers to aid in the tracking of their web browsing habits, the ePrivacy Directive applies. In addition, the Opinion went on to specify that if the behavioral advertising involves the collection of any personally identifiable information (PII), including an individual’s IP address (which is recognized as PII in the EU), then the EU Directive 95/46/EC (the Data Protection Directive) also applies.

Opt-In Consent Requirement and Opt-Out Deficiencies Explained

The major theme of the opinion is that under the ePrivacy Directive, meaningful, informed consent must be obtained by an individual before any information is collected and used for behavioral advertising purposes. The opinion went a long way in discussing what the Working Party considers to be meaningful consent in the behavioral advertising context.

Currently, consumers can “opt out” of behavior tracking through control panels offered by certain online advertising services or by relying on default web browser settings through which Internet users automatically accept all cookies that websites request to place on their computers. Users are therefore automatically “enrolled” in behavioral advertising, and can only stop the practice (if they know it is occurring) by blocking or deleting cookies.

The Working Party rejected this “opt-out” approach, concluding that it does not sufficiently allow individuals the ability to exercise choice on whether to share their information with behavioral advertisers. Instead, it stated that notice to individuals should explicitly reference the ad network that will place the cookie and describe how the information will be used once it is collected. Then, the individual should be given the opportunity to “opt in” to the sharing of their information for behavioral advertising purposes.

Once a user opts in, separate consent would not need to be obtained every time the user visited a website participating in the ad network, but separate consent would need to be periodically obtained (the opinion did not specify a time period) and the user would need to be afforded the opportunity to easily revoke consent.

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