Google on Wednesday began testing what it calls "interest-based advertising" and the Federal Trade Commission refers to as "behavioral advertising," a terminological schism that reflects Google's desire to disassociate online advertising from data surveillance.
Behavioral advertising, or, to use the more sinister-sounding term favored by many media outlets, "behavioral targeting," has been a topic of interest at the FTC since at least 2006, when the consumer protection agency began holding hearings about how online technology raised consumer privacy issues.
The FTC held further meetings, specifically about online ads, in 2007 and last month issued a report outlining self-regulatory principles for online advertisers. Industry organizations and privacy groups have likewise recently weighed in with suggested rules.
One of the goals of such rules is to avoid being associated with companies like NebuAd and Phorm, which practice a more controversial form of behavioral advertising based on information collected through agreements with Internet users' ISPs.
And as Google concedes, it hasn't been easy to find the right balance between the interests of advertisers and consumers.
"Providing [interest-based] advertising has proven to be a challenging policy issue for advertisers, publishers, Internet companies, and regulators over the last decade," said Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel, in a blog post. "On the one hand, well-tailored ads benefit consumers, advertisers, and publishers alike. On the other hand, the industry has long struggled with how to deliver relevant ads while respecting users' privacy."
Eager not to be associated with contentious advertising practices, Google characterizes its interest-based advertising as a way to make ads more relevant and useful.
"We believe there is real value to seeing ads about the things that interest you," explained Susan Wojcicki, a VP of product management at Google, in a blog post. "If, for example, you love adventure travel and therefore visit adventure travel sites, Google could show you more ads for activities like hiking trips to Patagonia or African safaris. While interest-based advertising can infer your interest in adventure travel from the Web sites you visit, you can also choose your favorite categories, or tell us which categories you don't want to see ads for."