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In the ongoing debate over behavioral targeting methods online, the subject of consumer preference is a thorny issue. Most consumers don't opt out of sharing their information with advertisers online. Is that because they don't know how, or because they don't care what happens with their info?

This Spring, ad network Fetchback instituted a new ad format that made it easier for consumers to opt-out of its advertising. So far fewer consumers are taking that route. If the data is to be believed, consumers don't seem to mind sharing their data.

But unfortunately for advertisers, consumer sentiment may not have much sway with regulators when it comes to behavioral targeting.

Starting in June, Fetchback started adding a link to its ad units that sent consumers to a page explaining advertiser details, Fetchback contact info and gave an option to opt-out of future Fetchback targeting. Since adding the links to its ads, Fetchback has seen fewer consumers withdraw from targeting.

The data is far from conclusive (the company only followed a two week sample), but it may help discount advertiser fears that users will flee if the choice to opt out of advertising is made more transparent. 

In fact, many consumers are glad to part with personal data if it means that they will receive more relevant advertising.

Fetchback CEO Chad Little tells AdAge that advertisers need to make the process of opting out easier for people:

"You're so focused on [the potential downside] you don't actually think about how it opens communication. Consumers don't know how easily to get in touch with the person delivering the ad because they don't know who's delivering it...We are trying to solve this problem by making privacy policies worded toward the lowest common denominator."

A bigger issue, however, is that the lowest common denominator is not paying attention to advertising at all. The number of web pages viewed every day and the sheer volume of fine print on privacy policies means that most people don't read any of it.

The problem with a study like Fetchback's (aside from its incredibly short time period) is that it assumes that consumers are proactively making a privacy decision when it comes to their new ad format. But the issue with behavioral targeting going forward is that most consumers don't really pay enough attention to ad targeting to make any decisions about it at all. Whatever the default option on targeting is online is the most likely scenario that most consumers will accept. 

This is something at the forefront of the FTC's investigation on the matter. David C. Vladeck, the new head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection has already called certain online tracking methods an "affront to dignity." I've written about that previously here.

Consumer decisions may have little to do with the way the FTC rules on the matter of behavioral targeting. Those in Congress and other privacy advocates are trying to prevent data violations that result from a passive approach to online privacy that could happen years from now. The real problem lies in the fact that due to the sheer volume of data passing before them every day, most consumers are leaving it up to someone else (advertisers or eventually the FTC) to make privacy decisions for them.

Meghan Keane

Published 24 August, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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