Yahoo launches privacy tool just in time for FTC consumer protection workshop

Yahoo is launching a new user tool Monday that lets online consumers see the information Yahoo has collected about them and opt out of advertising related to those interests.

The launch of the tool, called the Ad Interest Manager, couldn't have come at a better time. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is holding a workshop Monday focused on protecting consumers' privacy on the Web.

Yahoo has been developing the tool for the past year, said Anne Toth, the company's vice president of policy and head of privacy.

"I won't say we weren't cognizant of this date," she said. "Behavioral-targeted advertising and ad customization has been around for 10 year. The biggest challenge has been integrating this into our technology systems."

The tool gives users a summary of their online activity: searches they've made, pages they've visited and links they've clicked — all of the information that lets Yahoo make an "educated guess" about users' interests. Ads are then served to the users based on those interests.

So users can see if Yahoo thinks they are interested in cars, a tropical vacation or real estate. If they don't want to see ads in those categories, they can turn them off. Or if they'd rather see ads about insurance or pets, they can add those categories. Or they can opt out of interest-based advertising altogether.

"What we're hearing from consumers is that they want greater control over their online experiences," Toth said. "This is our way of giving that to consumers."

Self-regulation has been the name of the game when it comes to informing users about how their data is being used for advertising purposes. But some in Washington say self-regulation isn't enough and new laws are needed to make sure Internet companies aren't taking advantage of consumers. Jeff Chester, executive director of Center for Digital Democracy, said Sunday that "consumer panelists and privacy experts will call on the FTC to stop relying on industry privacy self-regulation because of its long history of failure."

Hillicon Valley will bring you updates from the FTC workshop throughout the day.