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‘Opting Out’ of Targeted Marketing Is an Obstacle Course

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by Hannah Habib and Lorrie Cranor for The Conversation

You’ve probably encountered a pair of shoes that won’t stop following you around the internet, appearing in advertisements on different sites for weeks.

Today, the vast majority of advertising is targeted – that is, you see an ad because an advertiser thinks that you, specifically, might be interested in what they have to offer. You may have visited a store page for a pair of shoes, or maybe there’s something in your internet browsing history that places you in their target demographic.

While many websites offer a way to opt out of targeted advertisements or unwanted emails, we discovered in our recent research that exercising privacy choices isn’t always easy. But that helped us formulate some simple solutions that could make things easier for users around the web.

Anything but standardized

Our team of research collaborators examined the privacy choices available on 150 English language websites. On each site, we searched for three common types of privacy choices: requests to be removed from – that is, opt out of – email marketing, opt-outs for targeted advertising and data deletion choices. For each privacy choice, we noted where on the website it was located and the steps required to exercise the choice.

The good news is that most websites do offer relevant opt-outs or data deletion options. Eighty-nine percent of sites with email marketing or targeted advertising offered opt-outs for those practices, and 74% had a way for users to request their data be deleted.

More good news: Nearly all websites had a privacy policy link on their homepage, and many of these policies included privacy choices.

The bad news is that the privacy policies we surveyed were long – on average 3,951 words. They were difficult to read, with only one-third including a table of contents. These policies were written well above the eighth grade reading level considered appropriate for the general public.

Worse, the sections containing privacy choices were even harder to read and understand than the rest of the policy, requiring university-level reading ability.

Key terms aren’t standardized across privacy policies on different sites. When we examined privacy policy section headings, we looked for phrases that appeared in multiple policies, such as “your choices” and “opt out.” Unfortunately, we did not find much consistency.

That makes it difficult for users to scan or search for key words or phrases that might help them understand their options. Users would benefit from standardized language across all websites that describes their privacy choices.

Even when a user manages to find a site’s privacy choices, it may not be clear how to use them. We learned that some opt-out links, instead of leading to an opt-out tool, went to the homepage of an advertising industry association that hosts an opt-out tool, but elsewhere on the site. Other links were broken.

Some policies contained multiple links to various advertising opt-outs, but the sites didn’t explain the differences between the links or whether a user would need to visit one or all of them.

One particular website we encountered, Salesforce, linked to six different advertising opt-out tools. In our view, users should not have to parse a website’s complicated third-party relationships; the websites themselves should make it easy for users to opt out of targeted advertising, no matter who is serving it.

Uncertain effects

Once someone does manage to opt-out, it’s not always clear what will happen.

Most websites we visited did not tell users exactly what they could opt out of. Some websites let users request to not be tracked for advertising, while others allow users to opt out of targeted advertising but not the tracking. In this case, a hypothetical shoe ad wouldn’t appear on the site, but the company advertising the shoes may learn that you visited the site.

Only about half of the websites that offered opt-outs for targeted advertising explained whether opting out of seeing targeted ads also meant that users would not be tracked. Users might believe they are protecting themselves from tracking when in fact they are not.

Even when the choices are clear, the pages are not always easy to use.

For example, to opt out of all of Amazon’s email communications, we had to scroll past a list of 79 options before seeing the option to “opt out of all marketing.”

At The New York Times, deleting the data they’d gathered on us required completing 38 different actions, including finding and reading the privacy policy, following the link to the data deletion request form, selecting a request type, selecting up to 22 check boxes, filling in eight form fields, selecting four additional confirmation boxes and completing an “I am not a robot” test.

Even if these design decisions are unintentional, companies are effectively deterring their users from exercising privacy choices.

Consistency is key

When it comes to digital privacy, we think consistency is key.

Websites need to provide choices that are easy to find, understand and use. They should simplify things by offering one-click opt-out options that consolidate multiple links and dozens of options.

It should go without saying that the opt-out links need to actually work.

If websites offer users the ability to make fine-grained choices, it would be helpful to put them all in one place and adopt consistent terminology.

Furthermore, websites need to clarify what opt-out options do.

And perhaps most important, regulators should hold companies accountable not only for offering choices, but for choices that are specific and that consumers can actually use.

Hannah Habib is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Institute for Software Research, Carnegie Mellon University. Lorrie Cranor is Professor of Computer Science and of Engineering & Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University.

The Conversation publishes knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence from academics and researchers in order to inform public debate with facts, clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.



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Consumer News

LA Alcohol Delivery Sees Massive Spike Following “Safer at Home” Order

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Photo by Waldemar Brandt

LOS ANGELES — Following California Governor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Safer at Home” order, Saucey has experienced an unprecedented number of users on their alcohol delivery platform.

The company has seen a 300% increase in area sales compared to a standard delivery day.

“As the concern over the COVID-19 virus has grown at both the state and public levels, I think you’re not so coincidentally seeing a rise in people ordering alcohol,” says Saucey co-founder and CEO Chris Vaughn. “We’re feeling the effects elsewhere too, like San Francisco and Chicago; we’re doing our best to assist everyone who wants to use us and use us safely.”

The Los Angeles-based app recognizes they are among select delivery services fortunate enough to be helping people in a variety of markets as they practice social distancing and protect themselves from the rapidly spreading Coronavirus.

“It’s good to see so many people making lifestyle adjustments that let them be as comfortable as they can be during this time,” Vaughn said.

There may be something to that comfort thing. Since March 15, Saucey has seen ice cream sales spike by 500% and soft drinks by 150%. Lime sales also spiked by 350%, potentially pointing to more people making mixed drinks.

As for the alcohol, vodka tops Saucey’s spirit sales and is up by 250%. Whiskey, however, saw the greatest spike at 300%. IPAs held the highest increase in sales in their beer category at 300%.

Saucey will continue providing safe deliveries to the people of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, Chicago, New York, Dallas, Silicon Valley, Orange County and San Jose.

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Business

Costco Says Don’t Even Think of Returning Toilet Paper

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(TMZ) — Costco is unsympathetic to all the folks who stocked up on toilet paper like they were never gonna get another sheet … because the superstore has made it clear — NO REFUNDS!!!

This sign was plastered on the wall of the Costco in Pentagon City outside Washington, D.C. Now that people have settled in, it seems they’re realizing they have waaaaaay too much toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wipes and Lysol, and apparently some are trying to return it for cash.

You gotta be a little sympathetic … lots of people got laid off after they hoarded these items, so money is a huge issue.

Also on the no-return list — Water and rice.

Continue reading at tmz.com

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Consumer News

Drives Aim to Keep Historic Restaurants Alive During Outbreak

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Owner Dimitri Komarov at the famous Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

LOS ANGELES (Daily News) — With restaurants limited to takeout service or shut down completely by the coronavirus outbreak, a drive has been launched to keep some of Los Angeles’ legendary eateries from fading away.

Known as 1933 Group, the team operates about a dozen themed bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, including the barrel-shaped bar Idle Hour in North Hollywood, Harlowe in West Hollywood, Highland Park Bowl and the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.

Many of them have shuttered in recent days amid strict orders implemented by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti, aiming to stem the flow of deadly COVID-19.

“We are struggling to survive,” said Dimitri Komarov, the venues’ co-owner. “The impact is dire. We’re losing our […]

Continue reading at dailynews.com

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