European commission scrutinizes online advertising

At a roundtable event in central London Friday, the European Commission invited leading industry figures to discuss issues of consumer protection and privacy in relation to online advertising in Europe. Many present doubted the online ad industry can be trusted to adequately guard consumers' data.

The meeting, titled "Consumer Policy in the Digital World" was called by the European Commissioner for Consumer Protection, Meglena Kuneva, and centered on the themes of targeting and profiling, and misleading commercial practices online.

Attendees included representatives from major U.K. and European consumer organizations, legislative bodies, trade bodies, and key industry players including agencies and technology companies.

Key questions on the meeting agenda were whether current legislation is sufficient to cover new and emerging online practices, whether the self-regulatory and enforcement regimes were able to cope with them, and what level of user awareness and consent is needed to allow fair data collection and user tracking.

In her opening remarks, Commissioner Kuneva stated that data collection intended to increase the value of advertising was "out of control," and expressed concern at the volume of data being collected without the consent or knowledge of the consumer.

"Current European legislation requires that users give their consent for such data to be collected, but is this consent fair, and do consumers know what they are consenting to?" she asked.

"Now is the time to strike a balance between effective use of data, and consumers' privacy. Trust is the currency of the online world," she continued.

In the view of Malcolm Harbour, Member of European Parliament, the responsibility lies firmly with advertisers and technology companies, who are obliged to inform customers exactly what it is they're opting in to.

This theme of consumer knowledge and education ran throughout the majority of the discussion, with numerous attendees echoing the sentiment that consumers should be fully aware of what it is they are agreeing to, and why.

Christopher Kuner, head of privacy and information management practice at international law firm Hunton and Williams, also questioned whether or not the European legal framework was currently robust and transparent enough to address these problems.

"Certain legal questions still remain unclear. Firstly, what exactly constitutes personal data? Does it include IP addresses for example?" he asked.

He added that there are even discrepancies when legally defining terms such as "anonymity," and suggested that before successful legislation can be put together, these terms need to be pinned down more effectively.

Another frequently asked question was whether industry self-regulation would be able to cope with the increasingly challenging and rapidly changing online landscape.

The IAB U.K.'s Nick Stringer thinks so.

"This area of consumer privacy and data collection is one of great importance. It's a fast moving and dynamic area, and I would place emphasis on industry self-regulation to carry this forward. We need to be clear not only on the potential problems surrounding these methods, but also the significant benefits they can offer. If it's a public perception issue, the industry can and will address it," he stated.

In her closing comments, Commissioner Kuneva said, "Its clear there is a lack of consumer awareness surrounding the collection of data. We are stepping into unknown territory, but will continue to follow this topic, and again and again seek industry input."

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