Academics want watchdog to probe online profiling
Published Monday, July 28, 2008 5:32PM EDT
OTTAWA - Academics concerned with new technology applications have asked the federal privacy commissioner to investigate online profiling of Internet users for targeted advertising.
Based at the University of Ottawa, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic warns Internet service providers could soon start sorting through everything users do online. They could then compile profiles about those individuals to sell for targeted advertising purposes.
The group says the practice, known as behavioural targeting, is growing across the United States and Britain.
Its director, Philippa Lawson, says behavioural targeting raises several serious privacy concerns and may violate federal privacy laws.
"Commercial organizations shouldn't be collecting and using our personal information without our knowledge and consent," she said.
"It is, quite possibly, contrary to law in Canada."
The group aims to promote a balance in policy and law-making processes on issues that arise as a result of new technologies.
ISPs often fail to provide sufficient notice to users, do not obtain meaningful consent from users, and do not offer users effective ways to control use of their personal information, says Lawson.
And it's not just about finding out someone's name, and using the information to contact that person, Lawson added.
"Some people would argue that an individual is only identifiable if you have . . . a person's correct name," she said.
"We would argue that that's not necessarily the case. As long as you can target that particular individual you don't need to know their name in order to invade their privacy."
The U.S. Congress recently held hearings on the topic and is considering passing legislation or issuing guidelines about the practice for industry self-regulation.
Proponents of targeted advertising argue that it allows customers to receive offers and information about goods and services in which they are actually interested.
As well, they say, targeted advertising can improve a consumer's Web experience by ensuring they are not repeatedly bombarded by the same ads and could lead to new products tailored to the needs of Internet users.
Critics have argued online profiling changes the Internet from a place where consumers can browse and seek out information anonymously, to one where someone's every move is recorded.