Online Ads that Just Won't Let upLaura Rich
When it comes to advertisements on websites, there’s a fine line between nuisance and blatant privacy invasion. Ads related to something you’re searching for are one thing; having those ads follow you around the Web is another thing altogether.
That’s what some advertisers are doing these days. Sometimes it’s just a coincidence that you see the same ad on different websites. But other times, it’s more deliberate. Thanks to technology that lets companies track and share information about their website visitors’ interests, an ad you see on one site may appear on another specifically because of the content you chose or the items you bought.
This tactic is called “behavioral targeting,” and it helps advertisers shave a significant amount of money off their budgets by delivering ads only to those people they believe may be most interested in their message. They determine this by monitoring your behavior on the Web -- for example, which websites you visit, what you buy and which links you click.
“It poses a real risk to people’s ability to shop anonymously,” says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. PIRG, the federation of state public interest research groups. “No one follows you around in a real-world store.”
U.S. PIRG was among several privacy groups that have been concerned about what’s happening with these kinds of advertisements. Earlier this year, the organization filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and called for an inquiry into behavioral targeting, especially when it happens instantaneously, and not just on shopping sites but all websites. Other groups involved in this claim included the Center for Digital Democracy and the World Privacy Forum.
In a nutshell, what happens is that a website creates a profile of your behavior and then shares it with other sites you visit that are in its network. None of your personal information, including your name, age, gender or location, is released; instead, an anonymous profile is created simply based on your actions online. But Mierzwinski says this is still an issue because it may limit the choices you have and even possibly the prices you are offered.
The good news is, the government is paying attention and will likely implement some new rules focused on online advertising. Among the ideas is a do-not-track list that’s similar to the Do Not Call Registry for telemarketers. You would be able to list yourself and marketers would not be allowed to create anonymous profiles of you.
In the meantime, here are some ways you can take control of the online advertising you see:
- Learn how profiles are created from one of the advertising technology companies, BlueKai, which has a detailed explanation on its website.
- Look for a white “i” icon on a blue background -- this symbolizes that the ad you see was based on behavior or demographic information.
- On Yahoo! sites, look for the AdChoices icon that links to more information on the ads you’re seeing and your options for managing your privacy.
- Download an Internet browser plug-in (called the Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out) that automatically prevents sites from creating a profile of you at AddOns.Mozilla.org.
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