The Canadian advertising industry is doing a good job of implementing new industry regulations for online interest-based advertising (IBA), according to a new report by Advertising Standards Canada (ASC).

In its first-ever accountability report measuring the industry’s compliance with the Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada (DAAC) AdChoices program, the arms-length ASC evaluated the websites of 78 per cent of the program’s 65 participants based on how well they met its standards for transparency – that is, whether consumers were clearly told their websites were using IBA, which targets surfers with cookie-based ads and is also known as Online Behavioural Advertising (OBA) – and control – whether they were given the opportunity to opt out.

“[The rate of compliance] was actually really good for a new program,” Peter White, ASC’s senior vice president and director of the organization’s AdChoices accountability program, which receives consumer complaints regarding IBA, told ITBusiness.ca.

While certain elements that ASC would like to eventually see were missing, the organization understands that implementing such programs takes time, with ASC’s own monitoring system spending months in development, White said. Though Canadian AdChoices standards were in place by September 2014, ASC did not begin evaluating the websites of DAAC members, which include such high-profile companies as TD Canada Trust, Wal-Mart Canada Corp., and Rogers Communications Inc., until 2015.

DAAC executive director Julie Ford said she “loved” reading ASC’s report, noting that it provides members of her organization with a clear breakdown of IBA standards in the Canadian advertising industry.

“It’s a great tool that I can use to help reinforce our standards for publishers, third parties and even advertisers – sort of a laundry list of what (ASC is) looking for and what they can focus their efforts on,” she said.

The two main areas where members fell short, White said, were consumer understanding that a website was using IBA and opt-out lists, which were often incomplete.

DAAC requirements recommend that participants provide “prominent” notice that their websites are using IBA, placing it “above the fold” so that it is clearly visible when visitors see the first page, according to the ASC report.

While 75 per cent of the websites reviewed provided clear notices, only 25 per cent met the “above the fold” requirement, the report said. For the rest, notice was typically given at the bottom of the page, and therefore often seen after visitors’ data was already being collected and used.

Both DAAC’s Ford and the ASC report said that one reason companies have been slow to adapt to the AdChoices program’s “above the fold” regulations is a key difference between the Canadian version and its American counterpart, which was implemented in 2011.

The American AdChoices program relies a great deal on footer notices, Ford said, which are deemed acceptable by ASC’s American counterpart, the Council of Better Business Bureaus, provided users can clearly see them.

By contrast, the ASC wanted Canadian standards to be more prominent, she said, and DAAC agreed.

As for opt-out lists, the ASC report said that consumers who opt out from receiving IBA on a given website expect to be removed from all third party lists collecting or using data for IBA purposes on that website. But while many participants provided an opt-out mechanism in their notices, 75 per cent of the websites reviewed by ASC did not include opt-out notices for all companies that appeared to be collecting or using data for IBA purposes.

Though the ASC and DAAC both put a positive spin on the report, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) said it proves that much remains to be done.

“While the report notes that a large majority of organizations have undertaken steps to provide notice and opt-out, we believe these are essential practices that all organizations engaged in online behavioural advertising should be implementing,” OPC spokesperson Tobi Cohen said, noting that ASC’s findings were consistent with her office’s own IBA report.

Released in June, the OPC’s IBA report discovered that online searches on sensitive topics such as pregnancy tests, divorce lawyers, depression and bankruptcy were being used for targeted ads, often without an option to provide opt-in consent according to OPC guidelines. If a procedure was available, it was often overly complicated.

“Advertising organizations and industry groups need to improve [their] opt-out procedures so they are clear, consistent, and usable,” Cohen said. “Those that rely on opt-out consent must avoid targeting based on sensitive topics, and must closely monitor the use of retargeting.”

Both ASC’s White and DAAC’s Ford said that since participants in the AdChoices program have been told about their online oversights regarding transparency and control, they have been in the process of correcting them.

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