Attention: The Online Ad Industry Is Now Officially Regulating Itself

Today is the day that online advertisers formally implement a code of conduct. The industry hopes it will persuade Congress to leave them alone — and convince internet users there is nothing inherently creepy about their business. Will it work?

The code, created and promoted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, strikes the right tone by emphasizing education, transparency and consumer empowerment. It requires members — who include heavyweights like Google (NSDQ: GOOG), MTV and the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) — to allow consumers to dictate how their data is collected and to be vigilant about ensuring that the data they collect remains safe and anonymous.

For Internet users, the only noticeable change will be the increased presence of a small blue triangle and an “Ad Choices” or “About our Ads” link at the bottom of the websites they visit. A spokesperson for the New York Times confirmed the company had added the link to its site to be in compliance with the code of conduct. Such links can now also be found at the bottom of sites like MTV, and Yahoo.

By clicking the link, users will ultimately be taken to sites like at which they can view the ad networks that are tracking their browsing activities and request to be removed. CNN is using the process to explain to viewers that opting out means they will continue to see the same amount of ads as before, only less relevant ones.

It is obviously too early to speak to the initiative’s effectiveness, but I have two preliminary thoughts about the new feature. The first is that the Ad Choices link is unlikely to demystify the nature of online advertising for many web users. I don’t see large numbers of site visitors — many of whom are unaware of what a cookie is — clicking through a tiny link to learn about the intricacies of ad tracking.

Secondly, the Code of Conduct applies only to a relative handful of mainstream companies that have chosen to participate, which somewhat limits its utility.

More broadly, their participation, while laudable, will do little to protect web users from the bigger threat to privacy — hackers, unscrupulous app developers and other rogue elements who don’t give a fig about things like “best practices” and “enhanced transparency.”