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Online publishers question Boucher privacy bill

In this video, I ask Online Publishers Association president, Pam Horan, to pose one question to Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA.) about his draft privacy bill. She talks about geolocation services, which are booming on mobile devices but have caught the concern of privacy groups who want limits on how much a Web site or advertisers can track a user's behavior based on where they located.

By Cecilia Kang

Online publishers such as CNN, The Washington Post and NPR think a privacy bill proposed by Rep. Rick Boucher is a balanced first step. But they have questions on specifics about the draft bill, which could have a big effect on their future business models.

“What our members provide is free to consumers, but the business model is advertising,” said Pam Horan, president of the Online Publishers Association in an interview yesterday at The Post. Her trade group represents companies such as Conde Nast, Reuters, USA Today and the New York Times. “So we need to get clarification on what is actually covered here.”

The business objectives of advertisers and online publishers have rubbed against concerns by privacy advocates that too much user data are being collected by search engines, social networks and other sites for targeted advertising. Only a small portion of online publishers use behavioral advertising, she said.

Federal regulators and Boucher are trying to craft rules of the road that would take into consideration those privacy concerns as well as the business interests of advertisers and publishers who are grappling with how to make money as content and services move to the Web. Consumer concerns, meanwhile, have been exacerbated by recent privacy policy changes at social networking giant Facebook, which has in some cases exposed user data more broadly to the public. In the New York Times, Facebook's vice president for public policy, Elliot Schrage, answered questioned from readers about its approach to privacy.

Horan said her members want flexibility in advertising to support their online businesses (90 percent of which is supported by ads), especially as more users consume information on mobile devices. She envisions users of tablet computers such as the iPad being able to get coupons and advertisements for businesses around them while surfing the sites of her members.

In Boucher’s bill, information about a person's location falls under a category of “sensitive information” that users would provide to advertisers only voluntarily. That means a user would have to opt-in to allow that information to be collected.

Horan said that as magazine, news wires and newspapers see tablet computers and other mobile devices as a bigger portion of their future business, how Boucher defines "precise geolocation information," as written in the bill, could mean the difference between Starbucks selling an ad to a user based on location (through global-positioning technology) or not.

“This can all be done in a way that is non-identifiable and is a huge opportunity for us,” Horan said.

By Cecilia Kang  |  May 12, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Privacy  
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