Consumer groups in both the US and EU have claimed that internet users are being cheated by digital advertisers and the light touch self-regulation of online behavioral advertising.

Today (14 September), regulatory advisers and advertisers will be meeting in the Hague to discuss recent efforts to stem potential data breaches as a result of online behavioral ads.

Data protection authorities have long eyed the complex practice of behavioral advertising with suspicion. Many web company profits are widely reliant on the practice, which involves providing users with ads based on their web surfing.

The information is gathered by cookies which are kept in a user's browser to help them log in to email faster, by remembering the username and password, for example.

"You cannot stop behavioral advertising because it is too important for online publishers, to name just one example," Kimon Zorbas, vice-president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), told EurActiv.

Though consumer groups accept that advertising generates valuable profits, they have come out in force against the industry's mode of regulation: currently embodied by a little known icon which, according to the IAB, as yet has no name.

"Consumers who may click on the icon are initially dissuaded from taking appropriate measures to safeguard their privacy, as they confront an array of information that online profiling is primarily about providing them with 'appropriate' advertising, is non-personal, and supports their access to a 'free' Internet," goes the argument of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), forum of US and EU consumer organisations.

The group adds that research shows that users rarely click on the icon which is designed to help them choose how their data is used. In addition of the few who click, only 3% then decide to opt-out.

The IAB admits that the icon's take-up is an issue and that they are working on getting more companies involved. Large companies like Yahoo! and Google use the icon, though in this example (please click) it is barely visible.

Claire Davenport