In a year when behavioral advertising was already expected to be at the top of the hot button privacy issues list, on January 13, 2008, the Center for Digital Democracy (“CDT”) and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (“US PIRG”) filed a document with the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) urging the FTC to investigate online mobile marketing practices, to take new actions to stop mobile marketing activities that “abuse consumer rights,” and to recommend new federal legislation and enhanced enforcement power for the FTC in this area. The document expands on the groups’ concerns about online behavioral advertising generally – the delivery of ads tailored to consumers’ interests based on browsing habits and/or consumer demographics – to the mobile space. In doing so the groups cite the potential for even greater consumer harm because of the additional possibility of location-based targeting linked to a cell phone or other mobile device that is typically tied to a single consumer who uses it for multiple applications, including voice, video and data.

In urging FTC action, the groups’ lengthy 52-page submission focuses primarily on media reports and the marketing literature of a large number of mobile marketing companies that tout the behavioral marketing capabilities of mobile technology.  The document also acknowledges the widespread consumer benefits mobile behavioral advertising offers, including making “rich media, free offers, personalization capabilities, and discounts” more broadly available. Despite its extensive cataloguing of the vast potential for effective targeted mobile marketing, the document is short on specifics as to how these practices currently harm or are likely to harm consumer privacy or constitute unfair or deceptive trade practices under Section 5 of the FTC Act. The group includes very limited specific allegations – against only Bango Analytics, Marchex and AdMob – that relate primarily to insufficient consumer notice.

 The advocacy groups’ filing follows the FTC’s late 2007 release of draft self-regulatory principles for online behavioral advertising discussed previously at this blog here. At that time, the FTC recognized the benefit to consumers of receiving advertising more tailored to consumers’ interests and the role advertising dollars play in supporting new, innovative and free content. During 2008, the FTC accepted comments on its draft principles and is expected to issue final guidelines in the coming months. Also during 2008, state legislatures and Congress also became involved in the behavioral advertising debate as covered in this blog here and here. Meanwhile, also on January 13, 2009, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Association of National Advertisers, Direct Marketing Association and Interactive Advertising Bureau jointly announced plans to develop enhanced self-regulatory industry guidelines for online behavioral advertising.

The CDT and U.S. PIRG filing will undoubtedly stir further debate as to whether the current regime consisting of (a) the forthcoming FTC self-regulatory online behavioral marketing principles, (b) case by case enforcement of unfair or deceptive trade practices under existing FTC authority, and (c) industry self-regulatory standards such as those adopted by the CTIA, and Mobile Marketing Association and expected from other industry groups, is sufficient to protect consumers in the vibrant, competitive marketplace of mobile communications where transparency and choice can be a selling point. We will continue to update our readers on these issues as the year unfolds.