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Congress Targets "Behavioral Ads"

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, April 24 2009

Flickr Photo Download: Rick Boucher (seated)The House Judiciary subcommittee with jurisdiction over Internet practices held a hearing this week that -- if Congress' history is any guide to its future -- may well mark the start of congressional handwringing over how companies like Google and others are using geo-targeting, search histories, and other markers to serve up customized advertisements. Critics (and some advocates) call it "behavioral advertising."

And Congress' interest is particularly relevant for us here because targeting Google advertisements based on what you're searching for, the websites you visit, and where you're surfing from is quickly becoming a standard political online practice. We saw it most recently with the battle over the Employee Free Choice Act, detailed here. It's a tool in the toolbox of nearly all online campaigners these days.

Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher is the chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. This week, he called together a session to examine what's known as deep packet inspection (DPI), which is peeking into the contents of the chunks of information that flow across the Internet so that decisions can be made about how to route them or, in some cases, about how to customize the end users Internet experience based on what they do online and how they do it. Taking a look at the envelopes that Internet data travels in is widely accepted practice. Steaming them open to see what's inside isn't -- yet.

That's why Boucher called the hearing, to examine whether legislation is needing to stave off DPI misuses of DPI before they come into widespread use. He called that prospect "nothing short of frightening."

But it's Round Two of the Boucher hearings that should perk the ears of online practitioners. At this week's hearing, Boucher announced his intention to hold a follow-up session this summer, in collaboration with the House Energy's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, that will focus on the privacy risks raised by behavioral advertising. Google and other online advertising companies are expected to be invited to attend. Boucher is no Internet naive, but the current fuzziness surrounding behavioral ads seem to make him uneasy. As he said at the hearing, "a range of concerns related to online advertising should be vetted."

Boucher's promised that the result of the series of hearing will be legislation aimed at "extending to Internet users [the] assurance that their online experience is more secure." In the name of self interest, if your business or your campaign makes use of targeted online ads, this is one congressional thread worth following.

(Photo of Rick Boucher by joebeone)