Compliance and Enforcement: Keystones for Self-Regulation Effectiveness

July 22, 2014

This blog post is another in our continuing series of coverage from #DAASummit2014, held June 26 in San Francisco.

One of the remarks made by the Federal Trade Commission’s Jessica Rich, as she spoke during a keynote address at the Digital Advertising Alliance Summit,  was her ticking off a list of hallmarks for successful self-regulation. Independent enforcement, backed by the power to refer to a government agency when necessary, is one such hallmark.

It is gratifying to have not only the Council of Better Business Bureau as one of our two enforcement partners, along with the Direct Marketing Association’s Committee on Ethical Business Practice, but also to know that CBBB, and DMA as well, are held in esteem by government officials whose purpose is above all enforcement and the protection of consumers.

During the Summit, we were able to hear firsthand from both our enforcement partners. Peggy Hudson, senior vice president, government affairs, spoke first from DMA. “DMA’s Accountability Program is consumer complaint driven. DMA receives more than 16,000 communications from consumers each year about a whole host of marketing practices. Those communications and complaints are what drive our process – a consumer complaint is the starting point for every compliance or enforcement action that DMA takes.”

“The good news is digital advertisers are a pretty good group of folks,” Hudson said. “DMA actually receives very few ‘actionable’ complaints. You and your competitors are mostly very compliant companies. This isn’t to say there are no bad actors in the online advertising ecosystem, but legitimate companies are transparent, forthcoming and responsive in our experience. So, keep up it up!”

Hudson also urged DAA and individual companies to keep up consumer education of our efforts – it is both necessary and effective. “If we’re going to continue building that consumer trust – and benefitting from consumer engagement – we have to keep on top of where industry is going. That’s why DMA – along with DAA and BBB – are constantly updating the Principles to reflect new technologies, platforms and practices.” DMA recently updated its own Article 38 of its Direct Marketing Association Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice to reflect interest-based ads served on mobile devices, for example, in conjunction with DAA’s recent Mobile Guidance.

Genie Barton, vice president and director, Online Interest-Based Advertising Accountability Program & Mobile Marketing Initiatives, Council of Better Business Bureaus, offered details – and lessons – from its 37 enforcement actions to date, one of which resulted in a referral to a federal law enforcement agency, the Consumer Financial Services Bureau.

“We’re here to answer questions businesses may have about their interest-based advertising practices and how to comply with DAA Principles – nothing you say in this room will be used against you,” Barton said, reflecting on the cooperative nature CBBB approaches monitoring and enforcement. “If you talk to us first, we will help you confidentially resolve any compliance issues you may have without a formal inquiry. But once an inquiry has been opened, the resolution of that inquiry process will be made public in a decision in order to honor our commitment to transparency.”

The BBB’s Accountability Program conducts its own independent research and queries, and monitors thousands of consumer complaints to see if any are actionable. A formal inquiry is sent when there is a potential case of non-compliance – but non-compliance is never assumed, Barton said, each and every business receiving an inquiry is given a chance to respond and to demonstrate compliance – or, if non-compliance is indeed found, the Accountability Program works with the company to help it come into compliance. In the case of non-compliance, the company involved also issues a public statement, as part of the BBB decision, stating its intention to implement the Accountability Program’s recommendations.

In 36 of 37 BBB decisions and administrative dispositions and disclosures to date, such cooperation has led to not only the right result by way of compliance to DAA Principles, but also provides guidance for all industry players to learn from others and increase awareness of recommended, compliant practices. One central theme that has emerged from a number of decisions is: “All parties in an online behavioral ad campaign must cooperate and communicate with each other in order to ensure the [DAA] AdChoices Icon is served with a company’s interest-based ad.” The BBB has also issued a compliance advisory about the obligations of web publishers that allow third parties to collect information for interest-based advertising on their websites to provide enhanced notice and choice to consumers about this practice.

Having these two enforcement partners who are independent but act as allies as industry educators as well as enforcers gives the DAA Principles a level of credibility that could not be achieved otherwise. That’s why I call accountability and enforcement our keystones.

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