United States: To Track Or Not To Track

Digital advertising based on tracking users' interests and related privacy concerns have been the subject of many recent news articles.  What does this mean for businesses?  Evolving industry practices and new legislation relating to online privacy and user tracking likely require changes to online privacy practices and policies.

Online privacy and user tracking are in the news almost daily.  Consider these highlights from the past few weeks about online tracking of California minors, big data brokers, California legislation addressing "do not track," new mobile and online interest-based advertising technology, and a warning to all website operators from the Better Business Bureau:

New Privacy Rights for California Minors

On September 23, 2013, Governor Brown signed into law new Sections 22580 through 22582 of the California Business and Professions Code titled "Privacy Rights for California Minors in the Digital World."  The new law, which goes into effect January 1, 2015, requires an operator of a website (including online services and applications, such as a social media site) or mobile application that is "directed to minors" to allow minors (defined as anyone younger than 18 years old residing in California) who are registered users the opportunity to un-post or remove (or request removal of) their posted online content.  The operator also must provide minors with notice and "clear instructions" about how to remove their posted content.  The operator is not, however, required to remove posted content in certain specific circumstances, such as when the content was posted by a third party.

This new law also prohibits website and mobile app operators from advertising to California minors certain products and services that minors cannot legally purchase, such as alcoholic beverages, firearms, ammunition, spray paint, tobacco products, fireworks, tanning services, lottery tickets, tattoos, drug paraphernalia, electronic cigarettes, "obscene matter" and lethal weapons.  Operators also are prohibited from using, disclosing or compiling certain personal information about the minor for the purpose of marketing these products or services.

Senator Rockefeller Expands Investigation of Data Brokers

On September 25, 2013, Governor Rockefeller (W.VA) announced that he sent letters to 12 operators of popular family-, health- and personal-finance-related consumer websites requesting details about whether and what information collected from consumers is shared with data brokers.  In his letter to the operator of self.com, for example, Rockefeller noted that "[w]hile some consumers may not object to having their information categorized and used for marketing purposes, before they share personal information it is important that they know it may be used for purposes beyond those for which they originally provided it."

California Adds Do-Not-Track Disclosure Requirements Effective January 1, 2014

On September 27, 2013, California Governor Brown signed into law amendments to the California Online Privacy Protection Act (CalOPPA), a 2004 law requiring all commercial websites and online service providers collecting personally identifiable information about California residents to "conspicuously" post a "privacy policy."  The amendments to CalOPPA, which take effect on January 1, 2014, add two new disclosure requirements for privacy policies required by CalOPPA:

  • The privacy policy must explain how the website "responds to 'Do Not Track' signals from web browsers or other mechanisms that provide California residents the ability to exercise choice" about collection of their personally identifiable information (Cal Bus and Prof Code §22575(b)(5)).
  • The privacy policy must disclose whether third parties use or may use the website to track (i.e., collect personally identifiable information about) individual California residents "over time and across third-party websites" (Cal Bus and Prof Code §22575(b)(6)).

The "Bill Analysis" history indicates that CalOPPA amendments are not intended to "prohibit third-party or any other form of online tracking" but rather to "implement a uniform protocol for informing Internet users about tracking . . . and any options they may have to exercise choice . . ." (6/17/13 – Senate Judiciary).

A website operator may meet the "do not track" disclosure requirement by including a link in the privacy policy to "an online location containing a description, including the effects, of any program or protocol the operator follows that offers the consumer that choice" (Cal Bus and Prof Code §22575(b)(7)).  

The reference in §22575(b)(7) to "an online location" suggests that businesses already complying with the " enhanced notice link" requirements of the Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising of the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) will comply with amended CalOPPA.  Among other requirements, the DAA's self-regulatory program requires website owners/operators (called "First Parties") to provide "clear, meaningful and prominent" disclosure about data collection and use for advertising purposes, and to offer consumers a way to opt out of tracking, such as through the DAA's consumer choice page.  As noted in the Bill Analyses, while the DAA's consumer choice mechanism enables consumers to opt out of receiving advertising based on online tracking data, it only works for companies that participate in the DAA's program and "does not allow consumers not to be tracked." 

User Credentials Subject to California Breach Laws Effective January 1, 2014

Governor Brown also signed into law amendments to California's breach notification laws on September 27, 2013.  As amended, the definition of "personal information" that triggers breach notification requirements includes consumers' online credentials: "user name or email address, in combination with a password or security question and answer that would permit access to an online account."

Mobile Advertising: Mobile Telephone as Tracking Device

In the October 6, 2013, edition of the New York Times, an article titled "Selling Secrets of Phone Users to Advertisers" describes sophisticated profiling techniques for mobile phone users that feed on data collected through partnerships with other various online service providers.  These companies are developing alternatives for cookies, which do not work on mobile devices and, as the new California law illustrates, are increasingly irrelevant as an online tracking technique because users can block or delete them. 

New Tracking Technology from Microsoft and Google

On October 9, 2013, AdAge reported that Microsoft is developing a new kind of tracking technology to replace cookies.  The new technology would function as a "device identifier," allowing user tracking across devices that use Microsoft Windows, Xbox, Internet Explorer, Bing and other Microsoft services.  Similarly, USA Today reported that Google is developing its own digital tracking mechanism known as "AdID."  While both of these new trackers will be used to collect and aggregate date for advertising and marketing purposes, they purportedly will offer users more control over how and what online activity is tracked and who has access to their personal data. 

Better Business Bureau Issues Compliance Warning to Website Operators

On October 14, 2013, the Better Business Bureau issued a Compliance Warning noting that a "significant minority of website operators" are omitting the "enhanced notice link" (as required by the DAA's Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising) when ad networks and other third parties collect data for interest-based advertising purposes but cannot provide their own notice on the website on which the data collection occurs.  The Better Business Bureau operates the Online Interest-Based Advertising Accountability Program, through which it monitors businesses' advertising practices and enforces the DAA's self-regulatory program, even for companies that are not participating in it. 

All of this news has created consumer confusion.  While consumers are increasingly aware of being tracked, they don't know what exactly it means or which websites are doing it—and they are not happy about it.  A study from data privacy company TRUSTe found that 80 percent of consumers are aware of being tracked and 52 percent don't like it. 

What to Do?

A check-up for the privacy policy (or "privacy statement," which is the increasingly popular industry term) posted on your company's website is a good way to start evaluating your company's digital advertising and privacy practices.  The online privacy statement is the primary means by which website operators (also known as "publishers") communicate their privacy practices to users. 

These Four steps can help you successfully evaluate your company's privacy statement:

First, find out if your company's marketing strategy includes advertising based on consumer information collected through cookies or other tracking technology.  Even if this type of advertising is not part of current plans, your company's website still may have third-party tracking activities occurring on it, and these activities must be disclosed in the privacy statement as of January 1, 2014.

Second, review the privacy statement displayed on your company's website(s) and/or mobile application(s) and make sure it accurately, clearly and completely discloses the information collected from users, how it is collected (e.g., by your company or by third parties), how your company uses the information, and whether and how the information is disclosed to third parties.  If you use information that you collected from consumers for targeted advertising, make sure the privacy statement says so.  A federal judge in the Northern District of California recently reviewed a company's online privacy policy to evaluate whether users reading the privacy policy would understand that they were agreeing to allow user profiles and targeted advertising based on the contents of their e-mails.  The court found that the lack of specificity in the company's privacy policy about e-mail interception meant that users could not and did not consent to the practices described in the online privacy policy.

Third, find out when and how the privacy statement is or was presented to users who provide personal information through the company website(s) and/or mobile application(s).  Is the privacy statement presented as a persistent link in the footer of each webpage?  Are users required to agree to the privacy statement?  If not, consider implementing a mechanism that requires users to do so before providing their personal information.

Finally, if your privacy statement needs to be updated, make sure you notify all consumers in advance and ensure that the changes you propose are reasonable.  Unreasonable and overbroad changes made after the fact can cause reputational harm.  Instagram learned this at the end of 2012 when it tried to change its terms of service so that users' photos could be used "in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to [the user]."  After a hail of consumer complaints, Instagram withdrew the revised terms and publicized new, more reasonable ones.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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