BBC Online and behavioural targeting
I am fortunate in being surrounded by people for whom creative technology is intuitive, exhilarating and extraordinarily vivid. A connected world is the world we help shape.
However for those for whom the internet feels like alien territory, anxieties around issues such as safety, security and privacy can stand in the way of making the most of what the web has to offer.
These concerns are real. Our public service ethos acts as a powerful motivator: we want to provide a safe environment within which people can enjoy our offer.
Recently, there have been a lot of column inches on the use of so-called 'behavioural targeting' - the delivery of adverts to audiences based on their internet activity. Phorm's behavioural targeting service, for instance, has received particularly widespread coverage.
I thought it worth sharing my thoughts. First, a recap on the main ways in which behavioural targeting works.
A commercial company cannot provide good free content on the web without relying on advertising revenues. In which case, the better targeted the marketing - the more sales that are generated. I believe bbc.co.uk thrives by being part of a bigger competitive landscape of amazing content providers - mostly funded by advertising.
Ads can be specifically targeted to users falling within specific "segments" - and there is a user benefit in that. It can also generate revenues that can be reinvested into supporting our public service remit of creating useful propositions for our audiences, as well as new ways of delivering them. Naturally, as a user, you have the choice to opt out.
Then, there is a further type of targeted marketing - ISP based behavioural targeted advertising (such as Phorm) - which is different. Targeted marketing here works by putting their technology into the ISPs networks. They intercept all users' browsing activity using 'deep-packet inspection', putting each user into a 'bucket' that broadly and anonymously categorises them, and serves them ads based on which "bucket" they are in. Whilst this enhances the quality of the targeting (as it covers a broader range of sites) it is also more invasive than first-person or network targeting as it collects the user's entire web activity.
My understanding is that Phorm is not currently deployed on a UK ISP, though it has been trialled. So the jury is still out.
Some principles remain true. They are quite simple - the privacy of our user and the code we follow as a public service broadcaster. This means it is not appropriate for third parties to use the data profiles of the users of BBC services for commercial gain.
Your ISP should always give you the choice of opting into their use of this type of behavioural targeted advertising. This has been laid down by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) last year. As it's your ISP who decides whether or not to use this type of technology, it is worth knowing that there are steps you can take. In the case of Phorm, in particular, you can also opt out via their website.
Deep packet inspection is a big issue in Europe. So is the allied topic of users being in the driving seat and being able to give informed consent. The European Commission issued an action about a month ago against the UK Government querying whether the law here goes far enough to protect users.
We are watching this space closely and waiting for details of the Government's response, which is due around mid June.
I am keen to hear your thoughts. There's more coverage of the subject in the links below if you are after further information.
Seetha Kumar is Controller, BBC Online and the BBC's Online Access Champion.