The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) Ensures Top Ad Companies Don’t Collect Your Sensitive Browsing Information Without Consent

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The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) Ensures Top Ad Companies Don’t Collect Your Sensitive Browsing Information Without Consent

Hayley Matthews Hayley Matthews • 6/05/17

The Short Version: Founded in 2000, the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI)  promotes the health of the online ecosystem by maintaining and enforcing high ethical standards for data collection and use for advertising online and in mobile. NAI promotes responsible data collection and requires opt-in consent by the consumer for the use of ‘sensitive data.’ The not-for-profit organization boasts a membership of 100+ premier digital advertising companies, including Google, AddThis, Yahoo, and Microsoft. These ad-tech companies agree to comply with the NAI Codes of Conduct, self-regulatory principles that require NAI member companies to provide notice and choice with respect to targeted advertising, and impose a host of substantive restrictions on NAI member companies’ collection, use, and transfer of data used for these purposes. Through independent compliance reviews and a consumer-friendly opt-out tool, NAI holds ad-tech companies accountable and ensures greater transparency, trust, and privacy online.

The internet merges public and private spaces. We feel like we’re alone on the web, even though our every keystroke is part of the public domain. Sometimes that leads to uncomfortable situations for daters who want to compare prices for fuzzy handcuffs or need to look up a suspicious rash in an unmentionable place — but don’t want that information circulating online.

On a lonely night, you might wander into places you’re not proud of and browse websites you’d blush to look at in the harsh light of day. For couples who share computers or devices, certain targeted ads can really blow your cover — and not just by revealing your Christmas shopping list. An ad for an abortion clinic, for example, may not be something you want broadcasted on the sidebar of a website. Your browser history is your business, and you should be aware of where all that data is going.

The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) recognizes the need for discretion as well as personalization in online advertising. This groundbreaking organization seeks to promote consumer privacy and trust by creating and enforcing high standards for responsible data collection and use in online advertising and in mobile environments among its members.

Screenshot of NAI's homepage

NAI’s membership includes top tech companies like Google and Yahoo.

Since 2000, more than 100 companies have joined the organization’s mission to uphold transparent practices in internet-based advertising. The group enforces its Codes of Conduct to ensure that ad companies are meeting their commitment to self-regulate while helping consumers have a good experience with online advertisements.

According to the site, “NAI members share a common vision of strong, industry-led self-regulation to promote shared values among our industry members and foster trust in the online advertising ecosystem.”

“We ensure our members have good practices based on our underlying principles of notice and choice. We go further in terms of regulating ads on sexual orientation and certain health conditions,” Anthony Matyjaszewski, Vice President of Compliance and Membership, said. “That’s something that makes NAI stand out.”

Giving You Notice & Choice About Sharing What You Search Online

We rely on the internet to give us the answer to any question, from “How do I get a guy to like me?” to “What are the symptoms of an STD?” However, daters may want to think twice before conducting sensitive searches on the web — because that information can be stored and used in online advertising.

NAI advocates for greater consumer awareness about how personal data collection for digital advertising is used by their members. To foster trust in the online landscape, NAI encourages ad-tech companies to give consumers notice and choice about what information is gathered on them.

Through advanced technologies, NAI members companies help advertisers show relevant ads — matching these ads with broad interest categories or groups like “shoe shoppers ages 20-30” or “shirt buyers in Virginia.” This is called Interest-Based Advertising or “IBA.” For NAI members, IBA is not about you as an identifiable individual. They generally don’t collect names, email addresses, or telephone numbers. Instead, NAI member companies make educated guesses about the preferences and interests of consumers. Advertising to individuals based on this information is a much more effective way to attract sales, though it brings up some privacy issues. By advocating for responsible and transparent data collection, NAI reinforces a positive symbiotic relationship between advertisers and consumers.

Photo of the NAI Summit 2016

NAI hosts an annual summit to discuss online marketing strategies with industry leaders.

Though some consumers may bet annoyed with ads, much of the free content we enjoy on the web is only there because of ads, which have grown increasingly adept at targeting individual interests. Many tech-savvy companies now advertise by placing consumers in an interest-based category or groups. Instead of sticking the ad in one place and hoping the right people see it, modern advertisers find the right people first and have a targeted ad show up wherever they are online.

This type of tailored ad is valuable to the shopper (because it highlights relevant products you may like), valuable to the advertiser (because it ups the likelihood of a sale), and valuable to the site (because it generates revenue). Many blogs rely on ad revenue to support their content. Thanks to the ad ecosystem, websites don’t have to be prominent to be profitable, and even small sites can afford to promote free content to users.

“A lot of the content you’re consuming is only there because it’s paid for by ads,” Anthony explained. “Essentially, targeted ads enable smaller niche content providers to thrive.”

Consumer Opt Out™ Keeps Your Private Affairs Out of Targeted Ads

Sometimes daters don’t want targeted ads from a certain brand following them on the web and revealing private information. A closeted gay man or lesbian woman, for instance, may not want an ad for an LGBT dating app to pop up on his or her screen in front of friends or family members who don’t know his or her orientation. People looking up a sensitive health condition, like an STD, undoubtedly would like to have a say in who has access to that information.

NAI takes a strong position on sensitive information and believes such information merits higher obligations for Interest-Based Advertising (IBA). In its 2013 Code update, NAI expanded the definition of sensitive information to include sexual orientation, meaning that its Code prohibits its member companies from creating audience segments or interest categories for IBA based on an individual’s status or perceived status as LGBT without obtaining prior opt-in consent from the user. That means an individual must take an affirmative step or provide consent for a personal browser or device to be associated with an audience segment that presumes an interest in LBT products, issues, or services.

“There’s a presumption of anonymity when browsing the web, but that’s not always the case,” Anthony said. “When a company collects data online, NAI ensures they’re doing things the right way.”

NAI members agree to uphold transparency in online advertising. NAI has developed practical tools as well as policies to give consumers more control over the ads they see. The network’s newly developed Opt-Out tool is a manual check on targeted ads from over 100 tech companies. Consumers can use this tool to find out which NAI member companies may be conducting Interest-Based Advertising, learn more about these companies’ privacy policies, and choose to opt out of interest-based advertising from these companies.

Screenshot of NAI's Consumer Opt-Out Tool

Consumers go through a checklist of NAI members to opt in or out of internet-based advertising.

NAI’s Consumer Opt-Out tool empowers consumers to decide for themselves which advertisers can tailor their ads to your interests based on your online activity. With a click of a button, you can opt out of tailored advertising technologies — including non-cookie tracking methods — conducted by more than 100 top companies. NAI-affiliated advertising companies will happily grant you the privacy you seek. Because no means no.

To help consumers maintain anonymity on the web, NAI constantly develops innovative solutions for online advertising in an ethical way. “If you have a private or sensitive issue, you may not want to get ads reflecting that,” Anthony noted. “To lessen the ad’s potential to cause embarrassment, advertisers in our network can require an opt in from users.”

A Dynamic Young Team Conducts Regulatory Compliance Reviews

NAI’s fair-minded team brings accountability to online advertising. Every year, the organization conducts independent regulatory compliance reviews of its members to ensure the ad-tech companies meet certain standards for fair and transparent practices. The compliance staff works one-on-one with companies in need of guidance on particular issues.

“We find the NAI annual compliance review process an essential part of our privacy program,” said Diana Olin, Senior Legal Counsel of YuMe, in a testimonial. “The review helps us apply the Code to our business.”

“The compliance process is a priority for us because we know that even the highest standards of self-regulation are meaningless without an insistence on accountability.” — the NAI 2015 Annual Compliance Report

In the course of the review, the NAI team checks the contract language, opt-out policy, health-related targeting, and other advertising practices of its members. Anthony told us this young and dynamic team may come from diverse professional backgrounds, but they all feel passionate about making the internet a better place for consumers and advertisers alike.

“It’s important for consumers to know that we’re people just like them,” he said. “We’re safeguarding privacy while ensuring ad companies can continue to provide innovative services.”

NAI Supports Transparency for Advertisers & Privacy for Users

Privacy on the internet is achievable if you take the proper precautions. That doesn’t just mean locking your door or deleting your browser history — you have to be aware and take control of what happens on the other side of the computer screen. For starters, you can choose to opt out of Interest-Based Advertising using NAI’s innovative and consumer friendly tools.

NAI educates consumers about the benefits of online advertising. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy free and open channels of information without ads helping web creators turn a profit. NAI works to ensure that targeted advertising doesn’t reveal private information based on a user’s browser history with guidelines for advertising technologies and crucial opt-in policies backed by over 100 top ad tech companies.

“In the health-related space, we have a lot to offer through our requirements,” Anthony told us. “The fact that a vast majority of the ecosystem participates in our compliance reviews helps protect consumers in that respect.”