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Privacy watchdog takes aim at online consumer 'profiling'

Canadian Privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

People creeped out by advertisements that follow them from one website to another, like nimble online stalkers, may soon be getting some relief. On Tuesday, Canada's Privacy Commissioner unveiled sweeping new guidelines that seek to limit the activities of online ad companies that compile profiles of individuals based on their Web surfing.

Suggesting that advertisers have failed to fully inform Canadians of the way they gather and use information, Jennifer Stoddart said the industry must change if it hopes to stay within the law.

"People must be made aware of what's happening," she said, referring to advertisers' collecting data on web surfers' travels. "There must be meaningful consent. And there should be limitations on the types of information collected and used for profiling."

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Ms. Stoddart spoke to a conference of lawyers and marketers in Toronto.

The guidelines form the privacy commission's interpretation of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, Canada's online privacy law, which applies to the private sector. Those who run afoul of the privacy commission would find themselves in federal court.

They cross a broad range of practices, from advertisers' obligation to dispense with the information they collect after using it to serve up tailored ads, to what Ms. Stoddart termed "no go" areas – tracking children online, and using sensitive information such as health or medical histories.

She also said that advertisers must be as transparent as possible about their activities, and give Canadians the chance to opt out of being tracked. This, she suggested, is for advertisers' own good, since it helps them create a high level of trust with potential customers.

In the speech, she noted that tracking technology is progressing faster than most people understand. "We've recently learned that Visa has taken out patents to market its transaction information for targeted advertising by combining it with information from social networking websites, credit bureaus, search engines, wish lists." It is also easier for web surfing and other data to be linked directly to individuals.

Online behavioural advertising has become a touchy subject as more people realize their online movements are being tracked by software that spans the web, permitting them to be followed from one site to another.

"Increasingly, Canadians are living their lives online and they expect online services and even some goods to be free," acknowledged Ms. Stoddart. "Probably more than a few appreciate that they are paying for those free services and goods by letting websites sell their eyeballs to advertisers. And some people like seeing ads tailored to their particular interest."

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Still, other people "are about as uncomfortable with the notion of their online wanderings being tracked as they would be with someone following them around a shopping mall. In other words, they find this practice downright creepy."

Industry representatives said they welcomed the new guidelines, adding that a campaign is planned for early next year to educate Canadians about how online behavioural advertising works. "Consumers will be able to see the positive side of it and they will not find it as creepy as when it first came out," said Robert Reaume, vice-president of policy and research for the Association of Canadian Advertisers. "If you don't have toddlers, why should you get diaper ads? It's just annoying."

He added that he was pleased to hear Ms. Stoddart acknowledge that the new advertising technique is more efficient for business. "I really think there has been a meeting of the minds here."

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Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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