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BrightTag tackles online consumer privacy and data management

BrightTag CEO Mike S(far right sweater) meets with company's programmers their office 150 N. Wacker.

BrightTag CEO Mike Sand (far right in the sweater) meets with the company's programmers at their office at 150 N. Wacker.

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Updated: December 31, 2010 3:52PM

Amid increasing controversy about Web surfers’ privacy, a Chicago company has designed a solution to help companies manage their site visitors’ data and control how third-party advertisers track those users’ behavior.

Now that advertisers can buy access to the computers of people looking at their ads, web users’ privacy has become a hot-button issue. The controversy prompted the Federal Trade Commission on Dec. 1 to propose a “do not track” option that would let people surfing online choose whether they want their browsing history to be monitored. And Microsoft announced that its Internet Explorer browser 9, to be released in 2011, will include a tool that allows users to block certain third-party sites from tracking them.

Advertisers and companies that do business on the web say such a move would thwart their ability to give Web surfers the information they’re looking for, and ruin the surfers’ experience by making them retype their information every time they enter a favorite Web site. Congress would have to approve such a move. Interactive ads generate $300 billion in economic activity in the United States each year, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

Enter BrightTag, a one-year-old powerhouse made up of Chicago technology startup alumni Marc Kiven, a native Chicagoan who founded the company after working at online tech and advertising companies Avenue A and Right Media, and Chief Technology Officer Eric Lunt, a co-founder of Feedburner, now a Google property, and the now-defunct

BrightTag’s solution replaces the many individual pieces of software called tags with a single tracking tag that every on-line company can use to send information from its own Web site to a third party, usually an ad network or an analytics company.

The tags can track the Web site’s visitors, the visitors’ behavior, what they’ve looked at and what they’ve purchased. The Web site owners use the information to design more efficient sites. Advertising networks and analytics firms use the data to provide ads and messages relevant to the Web surfer’s search.

“The currency that makes all of this work is the safe and secure transmission of information between the Web site owner and the third party,” said Mike Sands, BrightTag’s president and CEO and the first marketing employee of airline deals site Orbitz.

Sands believes that a “do not track” policy isn’t the only answer in keeping user data safe. A better answer could be for the company to give Web site users choices about the types of information they want to share with third parties. That way, companies wouldn’t lose their advertising revenues and consumers would continue to get relevant advertising and information without having to pay for content.

“I think we can help solve this issue because we provide a high level of control to Web site owners,” Sands said. “It has always been our intent to provide Web site owners with consumer opt-in and opt-out choices.”

John Verdi, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said any “do not track” policy would be difficult to implement because there are so many kinds of data and ways to access Web sites.

“There are so many kinds of data that Web sites can collect — personal, aggregated, re-identifiable, personally identifiable or de-identified information,” Verdi said. “How would ‘do not track’ be implemented, given the different methods of access — browsers, cookies, operating systems and at the server level? It is a notion and a goal at this point.”

BrightTag charges companies a monthly fee to access its software. The software lets marketing professionals decide which partners to work with and what data to share using a Web dashboard. The software is installed one time, but is accessible to as many people as are given the right to use it.

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