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Online advertisers are working hard to self-regulate and avoid the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission when it comes to behavioral targeting. To help with those efforts, spam management company UnsubCentral launched a new tool that gives people more control over the ads they see online. PreferenceCentral lets consumers decide what kinds of behaviorally targeted advertising they do and do not want to recieve.

If individuals (and online advertisers) start using it, UnsubCentral could play a big role in serving more relevant (and welcome) advertising online. Trouble is, there's no way to know that will happen.

PreferenceCentral will let web users manage the types of behaviorally targeted ads they receive. The online advertising industry is also set to launch behavioral targeting icons that inform consumers when they're being served BT ads and how to opt out of them. PreferenceCentral will work in conjunction with that effort.

Steven Vine, the company's privacy officer, tells Econsultancy:

"The ad technology included in the ads will detect the user's preferences and deliver or reject the delivery of the ad based on those preferences.  Integration will be free for the ad networks and will be as simple as any other ad technology they currently allow."

The idea is that listening to consumers will create better — and more relevant — ads that they're likely to pay attention to. But there's no guarantee that consumers will take the time to opt-out of various verticals and types of advertising online. And PreferenceCentral cannot control all BT ads online. Advertisers and networks need to sign on with with the group for their inventory to be part of the online opt-out process. The website does not provide much information, but states:

"PreferenceCentral is a comprehensive solution that allows advertisers and their partners to provide consumers with an easy way to control their own advertising experience."

The wording about advertisers and their partners is vague. But according to Vine:

"A brand would need to be using our technology for a consumer's ad to be affected by it. It is an ad technology that is implemented by brands and
intended to be integrated with their ad delivery on ad networks. The best analogy is to compare this to other ad technology providers that brands use. However, instead of using ad technology for targeting purposes, the technology is used for compliance purposes to honor consumers choices with respect to those brands."

Unfortunately, there's no way to guarantee that the kinds of BT ads that rile up privacy advocates will be affected. For instance, Facebook came under fire this month with the launch of its new Instant Personalization feature because its default setting opts users in and the social network makes it difficult for consumers to opt out.

Says Vine:

"Facebook is a good example of the implementations described above. We would not bypass them; however, we would certainly work with them to provide consumers with another way to express and implement their advertising preferences."

One thing working against UnsubCentral is the fact that companies like Facebook purposefully set their defaults to opt-in because it gives marketers access to more of their users. And while letting people customize their privacy settings online will likely lead to more relevant advertising being served, another problem is that consumers often go in one direction or the other. If they're going to take the time to opt out of some advertising, they might just go ahead and opt out of all BT ads. Advertisers — and sites like Facebook — don't want consumers to do that. For that reason, efforts like PreferenceCentral might be a hard sell for them. But if advertisers and networks do adopt features like this, it could go a long way toward warding off regulation from Congress.

Meghan Keane

Published 29 April, 2010 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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