Tom Cohn is an online advertising legal eagle. During a 17 year stint with the FTC, he was regional director for the Northeast region in the marketing practices division. He's also worked as a legal advisor to the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Currently, Cohn is with Venable LLP's New York office, where along with legally representing clients, he also advises them on legal and practical aspects of FTC and industry regulatory compliance. His clients include some of the major players in digital advertising as well as industry trade organizations including the IAB, AAAA, AAF, and the DMA.
We caught up with Tom to ask what he sees as the burning legal issues in online advertising today. Number one on his list? The still-in-progress FTC Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
Web proxy servers are not new. These servers, which serve as 'middlemen' for accessing the web, are often used by corporations to accelerate web browsing through caching and to filter traffic. They're also used by individuals looking for a bit of anonymity online.
I often use one since I live in a country that is sometimes blocked from using popular services that are based in the US.
It's either one more swipe at the 800-pound gorilla, or it's a serious problem brewing for Google. Today a Washington-based advocacy group filed a complaint asking the FTC to review Google's security standards for its cloud computing services. Among those services: Gmail, Docs, and Picasa.
The source of the complaint, and its target, are definitely serious matters. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) wants the trade commission to investigate "the adequacy of the privacy and security safeguards" of Gmail, Calendar, Docs, and Picasa. Earlier this month Google had to report a breach of its Docs application, which is one of the reasons EPIC filed with the FTC, it's petition states. Docs has 4.4 million users; Gmail has 26 million.
They're calling it "interest-based targeting" rather than behavioral, but Google's finally allowing advertisers to target users based on what they've been surfing on the Web. With a twist. The company is handing over both tools and power to consumers who can find out why they're being served the ads they see, and also opt-out of the targeting by segment (if not entirely).
The program's still in beta (and beta at Google can last a long, long time). But once publishers get on board, consumers will have the option of viewing the categories they've been placed in: expectant mother, say, or travel. While they have the option of opting out of the program entirely, they can also opt out on a bucket-by-bucket basis, which may provide incentive for them to stick with the overall program.
Reading the blogosphere today it would be reasonable to think that Barack Obama has nominated Satan to lead the Federal Trade Commission. His name is actually Jon Leibowitz and all the talk about a "day of reckoning" for the online ad business will not be at the top of his agenda.
Leibowitz is a known anti-piracy advocate (good) and an aggressive
proponent of regulating online advertising (maybe not so good). He made
a speech on Feb. 12 while he was deeply into his job as one of the FTC
commissioners and investigating behavioral targeting. In that speech he
used the phrase "day of reckoning" about online ad regulation and
although it certainly has a promise of biblical wrath, he will not
smite this business.
Facebook is on top of the world. Its continued growth is nothing short of amazing and it now has over 175m members worldwide. It's adding 600,000 each day.
Of course, Facebook has yet to turn its popularity into the type of revenue it needs to thrive long-term but if there's one thing that could bring Facebook down, it's not revenue. It's privacy.
It's not easy to get multiple large trade orgainzations on the same page, and to speak with the same voice, but that's exactly what the major US trade orgs are doing in the face of potential federal regulations governing behavioral advertising practices.
The American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) have banded together (along with the Better Business Bureau) "to develop a cohesive and far-reaching self-regulatory effort for interactive advertising."