Can a little blue square save the online advertising industry from regulation? The Future of Privacy Forum hopes it will. The advocacy group created the icon (at right) to provide more information to consumers about the ads being served to them online. 

Now they just have to hope that consumers click on it.

Together with the Internet Advertising Bureau and other advertising groups, the Future of Privacy Forum has been working for the past few months to create an icon that would entice consumers to learn more about their privacy rights online. Part of an ongoing campaign from the IAB to inform consumers about their privacy rights online, advertisers are hoping that informing consumers will stave off regulation from Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. 

Jules Polonetsky, the co-chairman and director of the Future
of Privacy Forum, tells The New York Times that the group wanted “to
come up with a recycling symbol — people will look at it, and once
they know what it is, they’ll get it, and always get it.”

But online privacy is a little more complicated that the concept of recycling. Namely because of extensive privacy policies that explain consumers’ rights in exceedingly fine print. But Polenetsky thinks this method will simplify the process of teaching consumers about their rights:

“When consumers click on the icon, a white “i” surrounded by a circle on
a blue background, they will be taken to a page explaining how the
advertiser uses their Web surfing history and demographic profile to
send them certain ads.”

This could help combat the painful fact that even presented with the fact that many consumers don’t read privacy information online, even when it is easily within reach. They often
simply choose the default setting.

According to the FTC’s Northeast director Len Gordon:

“Everyone has operated on the assumption that consumers act rationally. But some have been disabused of that belief. The defaults need to be much more benign and consumer friendly.”

That could mean changing the online advertising default setting to opt-in, a result that has online advertisers terrified.

In The Hill today, Randall Rothenberg, president of the IAB, calls Rep. Rick Boucher’s proposed Congressional bill “The Spam
Preservation Act of 2010”. The bill could limit the use of cookies or mandate that all behavioral targeting or third party sharing of information be made opt-in. Rothenberg writes:

“Third-party management of the information units called “cookies” is
what limits the volume of irrelevant advertising a consumer receives

Advertisers who want to maintain their methods of serving relevant advertising are hoping that simply making privacy details more consumer friendly will help fend off excessive regulation of the industry.

And an icon like the one announced today may help. Maneesha Mithal, associate director for the division of privacy at the FTC, tells The New York Times:

“We support industry efforts to develop a consistent symbol and message
that would help educate consumers about online advertising…We hope they will share data, such as
click-through and opt-out rates, that will inform the debate.”

But more important is simply getting consumers to click on the icon. And that might be the hard part. Says Gordon:

“I don’t think the commission has made up its mind yet. It’s our belief that consumers don’t really understand what they’re sharing and what can be collected when they shop online.”