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By Annie Lindstrom

To date, online companies' privacy policies have been among their best kept secrets. Realizing the importance of privacy to their customers' quality of experience, however, online providers are taking steps to make the fine print easier to access and digest.

Proactive education is coming none too soon. According to eMarketer, the U.S. behavioral targeting market is poised to skyrocket from $1 billion in 2008 to $3.8 billion by 2011. Google, for one, has stepped up to the challenge by creating and launching several privacy-related videos on its YouTube Privacy Channel.

"Privacy policies need to be detailed and thorough because they are part of what holds companies accountable, but they don't always make the best tool for communicating with consumers," says Steve Langdon, director of corporate communications and public affairs for Google. "We need better tools to do that."

Google isn't actively touting its videos, but individuals seeking additional information concerning Google's privacy policy stand a good chance of being directed to the Privacy Channel. Once there, customers can view videos featuring actual Google employees. Short videos offer "tips" on how to use privacy features and settings, while longer four- to five-minute videos explain such topics as how cookies work and how data is collected when customers do searches. For laughs, the editors produced a short bloopers reel.

Understandably, the videos are not as comprehensive as privacy policies and vice versa. But neither is enough on its own, says Langdon. The overriding themes of the Google privacy videos are transparency and choice, with a focus on the essentials in a way that Google hopes makes it easier for consumers to understand privacy, how data is collected, how it's used and what privacy choices are available.

AOL also is taking a proactive approach to educating customers about privacy issues. The company's ongoing TACODA campaign and upcoming privacy penguin ad campaign help AOL to achieve its goal of educating customers about privacy and providing them with the control and information they need to opt-out, according to AOL spokeswoman Dori Salcedo.

In the upcoming ad campaign, a Flash-animated penguin explains behavioral targeting to Web surfers. The ads will be promoted via a privacy policy link and banners, and the tuxedoed one also will "live" where various privacy policies are located, Salcedo adds.

It's Showtime

Some may question whether these efforts will succeed in reaching more customers, but that isn't the main point says Alan Chapell, president of privacy consultancy Chapell & Associates.

"The point is that some people want to know more. And for those who want to know more, it is important for companies to find new and interesting ways to communicate with them," says Chapell. "If these efforts don't communicate to the masses, my response is that I'm not sure they need to."

Indeed, the majority are unlikely to take notice, says Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc. Privacy is still a bigger concern to the supply side of the equation than the demand side, he adds.

"No one really pays any attention to things like privacy until after something happens to them," he says.

Penguins and videos offer up a good start to dealing with an issue that is still in its infancy, explains Richard Purcell, CEO of Corporate Privacy Group. Until there are commonly accepted privacy standards, rules and norms endorsed by the players, each company must express itself individually, which creates its own confusion, he adds.

The online world is headed toward a time when transactions will more closely resemble real life. When the Internet first appeared, there was no deal; companies grabbed what they could and customers had no say. As the Internet evolved to accommodate more traditional business relationships, people were more informed about privacy policies, but on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. As the Internet evolves still further, increasingly there will be an interactive give and take between parties, concerning what each party is willing to do and how much each wants to participate with the other, explains Purcell.

"Today, privacy is not a push mechanism, it's a pull," he says. "It needs to be a transparent, open and honest deal that people make with one another."

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