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Groups call for new checks on behavioral ad data

Privacy advocates want Congress to consider regulations on the use of behavioral advertising data by large Internet companies looking to serve targeted ads.

Privacy advocates released a series of guidelines Tuesday for legislators considering regulations on behavioral advertising, calling for greater transparency and giving Web surfers more control over how the data is used.

Ten groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are pushing the debate ahead of the return of Congress in September, when certain members have hinted they'd be receptive to ideas for legislation. At issue is the use of behavioral advertising techniques by large Internet companies and services that track a user's online activity across a number of different Web sites, and serve ads accordingly based on that history.

Those companies argue that such ads are far more relevant to users than simply spamming them with whatever is selling that week, but privacy advocates are concerned about the amount of data that is being collected and what might be happening with that data behind the scenes.

"You shouldn't have to give away your privacy to shop online," said Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney with Consumers Union. "The technology is outpacing the existing consumer protections."

Hearings on the issue were held earlier this summer, with representatives from Google, Yahoo and Facebook appearing before Congress to defend their policies. At that hearing Yahoo reiterated its plans to introduce a policy next year that would strip personally identifying information from the data it collects after 90 days.

The guidelines released Tuesday call for far more than that, however. A full list (click for PDF) and letters to several members of Congress can be found on the U.S. PIRG's Web site.

Advocates want the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to define exactly what constitutes sensitive personal data, suggesting that factors like finances, ethnicity, and race should be off limits. They suggest that companies should only be allowed to collect and use data on Web surfers for 24 hours. And they would like companies to be required to inform users upon request the scope and details of the data that company has amassed on the individual.

Such provisions are likely to be met with opposition from industry groups, who value behavioral advertising because it allows them to serve ads that are more targeted and relevant: thus generating more clicks and more sales. They also believe their privacy policies prevent harm to users; to no one's surprise, the privacy advocates disagree.