Technology companies that promise to give advertisers the ability to target web surfers based on their internet habits are facing a mounting international privacy backlash amid increased scrutiny of online behavioural tracking. The furore has led some internet service providers to suspend or cancel trials of systems designed to monitor people online and serve up ads based on an analysis of the sites they have visited.
US behavioural tracking firm NebuAd and the UK's Phorm have found themselves at the centre of the spreading controversy, which came to a head last month despite lengthy trials of the technology in the past year.
Now at least six US ISPs have moved to assure customers that they have halted work with NebuAd, while in the UK organisations such as BT have delayed tests of Phorm's technology on a number of occasions.
Confirmation this week that the behavioural targeting trials in the US had been suspended came after US lawmakers in August voiced concerns about the practice and asked 33 information technology and communications companies to detail their privacy policies in relation to behavioural targeting.
The practice has also caught the eye of privacy experts in Australia and Mallesons Stephen Jaques intellectual property and technology partner Nicole Heller said that proposed reforms to the federal Privacy Act could help address some concerns.
The proposed reforms from the Australian Law Reform Commission were put to government last month following a lengthy review of the Privacy Act.
Ms Heller said that proposals included an expansion of the definition of personal information to take in the linking of activities such as web surfing to potential identifiers such as the internet protocol numbers computers use to communicate online.
"An IP address by itself, it's very clear is not personal information," she said.
"But if you combined an IP address with a whole range of additional information, you start profiling somebody. Then you could actually come up with a set of information that does identify a person, even though it doesn't identify their actual name."
Ms Heller said many web users still didn't fully understand the way in which marketing technologies were evolving online and the impact those systems could have on privacy.
In the US, lawmakers and the Center for Democracy & Technology have called on internet companies to clearly explain practices such as behavioural targeting to consumers and make information on how they use personal information more readily available.
The CDT also called for the creation of a Do Not Track list, similar to Do Not Call registers, that limited the ability of telemarketers to target people in their homes.
However, Ms Heller said that in Australia such proposals from privacy advocates were considered a more severe response and were not likely to be adopted.
"Some of the privacy advocates . . . wanted the privacy laws to be changed to effectively give people a right to be left alone. It would be, I suppose, a huge expansion of the Do Not Call Register where the mere address or the mere ability to contact somebody would be something that would be protected."
"But that's been pretty much resoundingly rejected."