Yahoo has launched a scheme in the UK to show visitors to its websites how their personal data are used to target advertising, the first such move by a large internet publisher ahead of the introduction of European online privacy rules.

A year after its launch in the US, Yahoo’s “Ad Choices” icon will be added to advertisements on pages where its users log in
to services such as Yahoo Mail and Messenger, some of its highest-value banners.

Clicking on the icon prompts more information about who placed the advertisement, why it was shown and gives links so users can manage their preferences about “interest-based” advertising.

Yahoo hopes the pilot scheme will improve public understanding of its advertising targeting system at the point where it is most relevant, rather than relying on a link to a privacy policy at the bottom of a web page.

“The idea of a visual symbol in and around every ad we show is to remind users that their information is being used and to give them a portal, a pathway into what data is being used and the controls they have over them,” said Justin Weiss, international privacy director at Yahoo.

Regulators in Europe and the US are concerned at how data about consumers’ online habits are collected, sold and used.

This month, Ed Vaizey, communications minister, and Christopher Graham, information commissioner, warned that businesses must prepare for the May 25 deadline when the European Union’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive comes into force.

The directive will require all websites to ask for visitors’ permission to install cookies and other forms of data collection software on their computers.

Yahoo’s Ad Choices system predates the directive, but could provide a way for publishers to avoid annoying visitors with pop-up boxes requesting permission for a system many internet users do not understand.

Publishers including Google, AOL and Microsoft have agreed to use the same symbol in the US but Yahoo is the first big website to introduce it in Europe.

“We want our competitors and other members of the ecosystem to recognise this is a do-able and scalable,” Mr Weiss said.

Mr Vaizey said browser settings might be sufficient to show whether the user had opted in or out of tracking cookies, but the government is working on how to implement the directive.

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