Formal Review 33.2014 - SunTrust Bank, Inc.

Accountability Program Issues Its First Government Referral

New York, NY – May 08, 2014 – The Online Interest-Based Advertising Accountability Program (Accountability Program) today referred SunTrust Bank, Inc. (SunTrust) to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after SunTrust refused to participate in the advertising industry’s self-regulatory process. The Accountability Program uses this cooperative inquiry process to help companies understand and comply with the cross-industry Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising (OBA Principles). 

As part of its ongoing monitoring and enforcement processes regarding website operators’ duty to provide consumers with transparency and control of OBA, the Accountability Program sent a letter of inquiry to SunTrust after examining the SunTrust website and observing what appeared to be third parties known to be engaged in collecting consumers’ web browsing activity in order to serve them interest-based ads. 

Under the OBA Principles adopted by the U.S. advertising industry, consumers must receive real-time notice of third-party OBA data collection that links to an explanation of this activity and further links to any easy-to-use opt-out mechanism. The inquiry sought SunTrust’s cooperation in determining whether SunTrust provided this required real-time notice to consumers. SunTrust declined repeatedly to participate in the Accountability Program’s inquiry stating, “Our institution is monitored by a sizeable number of both federal and state agencies and is subject to regulatory exams and reviews on an ongoing basis.  Complying with these demands consumes all of our allocated resources.” 

The OBA Principles were developed through a consensus process led by the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) a coalition of the major trade associations in the advertising world: the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), the American Advertising Association (ANA), the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), and the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), with the advice of the Better Business Bureau and the participation of a number of leading companies to provide a new level of transparency and consumer control, including real-time, “enhanced” notice whenever a third party is collecting a consumer’s browsing activity from different websites and using that data to serve the consumer interest-based ads. Companies are required to give consumers notice and a way to opt-out at the time third parties are collecting information on a website and when they are serving an ad based on that data. This innovative solution takes the notice previously buried in a privacy policy and serves it dynamically to the consumer as s/he browses the web. 

The advertising industry incorporated accountability as one of its core principles. The Accountability Program was developed at the request of the DAA to provide independent, industry-wide enforcement of the Principles. The Accountability Program is administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, under the policy guidance of the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council. The Direct Marketing Association also serves as an accountability agent and provides accountability through its Guidelines for Ethical Business Practices. 

Pursuant to its Policies and Procedures, the Accountability Program has discretion to refer any company that refuses to participate to the appropriate government agency, in this case the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

Since its inception in 2011, the Accountability Program has successfully concluded 32 formal inquiries with 100 percent industry compliance with its recommendations, as well as working informally with a host of companies which have asked the Accountability Program for its guidance on compliance issues. This is its first referral.

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