Thursday, 10 November 2011 00:12

Behavioural advertising opt-out tools don't work

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A recent usability study of nine opt-out tools that target behavioural-based advertising found they were confusing, difficult to operate and communicated very poorly with users.

A recent usability study by Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab found that none of the nine tested tools was suitable for use by the average Internet user.

The 9 tools were each tested by 5 separate people for an approximate 90 minute session each, for a total of 45 sessions.  Based on questionnaires, the participants were judged to be competent Internet users with no background in computing or web design, neither were they competently able to describe how behavioural tracking for targetted advertising might work.

Following a brief informational video that described such tracking, each participant was invited to install and configure one of the nine tools by way of suggestion from an email 'from a friend.'

The tools were in three broad categories:

Opt-out tools

  • DAA Consumer Choice
  • Evidon Global Opt-out
  • Privacymark


Browsers (the research paper noted that all major browsers had the ability to manage privacy; just two were used in the testing)

  • Mozilla Firefox 5
  • Internet Explorer 9


Blocking tools

  • Ghostery 2.5.3
  • TACO 4.0
  • Adblock Plus 1.3.9
  • IE Tracking Protection


The study identified a number of categories of deficiency.  For instance, the Opt-out web sites, along with TACO and Ghostery identified a number of companies users could block - but the company names were almost entirely meaningless to the participants.

Many tools were configured with inappropriate default settings while others struggled to explain their workings to the user; the study found products speaking in either simplistic or overly complex language.  Some tools also presented a very confusing interface which caused participants to struggle to make appropriate configuration choices.

According to the study's conclusion: "We found serious usability flaws in all nine tools evaluated. Our results suggest that the current approach for advertising industry self-regulation through opt-out mechanisms is fundamentally flawed. Users' expectations and abilities are not supported by existing approaches that limit OBA by selecting particular companies or specifying tracking mechanisms to block. There are significant challenges in providing easy-to-use tools that give users meaningful control without interfering with their use of the web. Even with additional education and better user interfaces, it is not clear whether users are capable of making meaningful choices about trackers."

The full study makes for very interesting reading and iTWire commends it to our readers.


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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.

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