Advertisers react to privacy watchdog’s online behavioural advertising study

More than one in 10 behavior-based ads related to personal topics like divorce, bankruptcy, and pregnancy failed to comply with federal privacy guidelines, a new study shows.

According to guidelines from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC), targeted digital ads involving sensitive personal information should require consumers to opt in if they want to receive such advertising. Yet 34 of the 300 targeted ads tracked in an OPC study required users to opt out, even though they dealt with that type of information.

“Some online behavioral ads did not have any notification or opt out option at all. Of those with an opt out option, a surprising number were on sensitive topics, which we found particularly concerning,” said Patricia Kosseim, senior general counsel at the OPC.

Online behavioral advertising (OBA) targets digital ads to consumers based on their online activities, including the websites they visit and browser search terms they use. The

Patricia Kosseim, senior general counsel at the OPC.
Patricia Kosseim, senior general counsel at the OPC.

OPC tracked behavior-based ads over a four-month period on 46 websites such as and It conducted research using specific terms and topics like pregnancy test, divorce lawyer, bankruptcy, and HIV dating.

OPC said in a statement that it is “following up with three advertising organizations that used sensitive information without appropriate consent” by not offering an opt in feature on some behavior-based ads. The three companies are Google, Criteo and AdRoll.

The OPC study defines information as sensitive and personal if its collection, use or disclosure (either alone or when combined with other information) could result in the following:

  • “lead to personal harm, financial or reputational damage, or embarrassment of an individual”
  • “reveal deeply personal or intimate details of the lifestyle and personal choices of an individual”

Overwhelmingly, however, the study shows Canadian advertisers are jumping onboard a new program to give consumers more information and control regarding behavior-based ads.

Ad Choices was created in the U.S. in 2011 and introduced to Canada in September 2014 by the Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada (DAAC). The DAAC’s 55 member organizations include advertising agencies, media outlets and major advertisers such as Ford, Unilever, and Scotiabank.

The Ad Choices icon indicates the opportunity to opt out of targeted ads.
The Ad Choices icon indicates the opportunity to opt out of targeted ads.

Advertisers can place the Ad Choices interactive icon on or near ads to notify consumers that they’re behavior-based. Consumers can also click on the icon to opt in or out of receiving such ads. Nearly all (96.3 per cent) of the targeted OBA ads studied by the privacy commissioner featured the Ad Choices icon.

“As a new organization we feel this is really, really good news. It says there’s widespread (Ad Choices) adoption. After 18 months that’s really encouraging,” said Julie Ford, executive director of DAAC.

Julie Ford, executive director of DAAC.
Julie Ford, executive director of DAAC.

Although almost all of the targeted ads studied by the OPC featured Ad Choices icons, the OPC report concludes that “using the Ad Choices icon (is) often difficult.” Sometimes the icons were hard to see, placed very far away from ads, led to a foreign Ad Choices site or required several steps to opt out of behavior-based ads.

“There could be a variety of different interfaces people were shown … (or) a lack of consistency or reliable feedback. If someone wanted to opt out of OBA, often they had to go to two or three different sites,” said Andrew Patrick, IT research analyst at the OPC.

“We take the report very seriously,” DAAC’s Ford responded. “We plan to review it in further detail and figure out what further avenues to take in the future. We do have guidelines in terms of the way the icon is supposed to be displayed.”

In an email, Peter White, director of the Ad Choices Accountability Program at Advertising Standards Canada, told that since the program launched in Canada a year-and-a-half ago, “We haven’t to date received any complaints about the Ad Choices icon or any difficulties using it.”

In April, Bell Canada responded to criticism from OPC by announcing plans to replace its behavior-based ad program – which automatically tracked customers’ mobile browsing habits – with an opt in version instead.

Also in April, research by the Canadian Marketing Association found that 33 per cent of Canadians are comfortable with OBA if the advertiser is transparent about it and gives them a chance to opt out (scroll to the bottom of this article for an infographic with this research). That rises to 41 per cent for consumers aged 18 to 24 and hits 42 per cent for all ages if the consumer understands how the Ad Choices icon works.

That data suggests Canadians are becoming more willing to give up some privacy in exchange for more information and control involving the marketing process.

But people in today’s digital world should assume everything they do can be tracked or shared even without their consent, said Brian Rotsztein, president of the Canadian Internet Marketing Association. He cited the example that anyone with a Facebook account can snap a photo of a non-account holder and post it on the site without their permission.

Brian Rozstein, president of the Canadian Internet Marketing Association.
Brian Rotsztein, president of the Canadian Internet Marketing Association.

“There’s a certain balance. Advertisers need to be conscious that people they’re advertising to might not be aware of all the tracking. But the onus is really on the people using the Internet,” said Rotsztein. “There’s an illusion of privacy but no reality of privacy.”

Canadian advertisers haven’t heard the last from the OPC on the issue of behavioural advertising. While it can’t disclose specifics, members of the office confirm there are other investigations around online behavioural advertising currently ongoing.

CMA - online behavioural ads infographic

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Christine Wong
Christine Wong
Christine Wong has been an on-air reporter for a national daily show on Rogers TV and at High Tech TV, a weekly news magazine on CTV's Ottawa affiliate. She was also an associate producer at Report On Business Television (now called BNN) and CBC's The Hour With George Stroumboulopoulos. As an associate producer at Slice TV, she helped launch two national daily talk shows, The Mom Show and Three Takes. Recently, she was a Staff Writer at and is now a freelance contributor.

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