December 4, 2007 4:00 AM PST
Target me with your ads, please
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Microsoft also offers behavioral targeting, anonymously tracking people across its network and blending that with search history and data supplied during registration to Microsoft's many online services. But it doesn't provide identifiable information, according to the company.
So far, Google hasn't jumped into the behavioral targeting pool, but who knows what will happen if its proposed acquisition of DoubleClick is approved and the market matures?
Meanwhile, the privacy debate goes on. Privacy advocates worry that details of our medical conditions and financial and legal troubles will end up in the wrong hands and for bad uses as the industry consolidates and companies change their practices.
"There really are no legal limitations today on what companies can do with personal information they collect for targeting purposes," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. And "if you provide information to a company with certain expectations and the company revises the terms of service, what do you do at that point? You can't say, 'I want my data back.'"
Data collection and sharing should be opt-in for consumers and the FTC should hold companies to their promises on protecting consumer data privacy, he said. Companies that are part of the Network Advertising Initiative, including Specific Media, Yahoo and AOL's Tacoda, allow people to opt out.
At the town hall meeting in Washington, D.C., an FTC commissioner urged companies to stop collecting information about consumers by default, and to clearly tell them what they are doing with the data, among other suggestions.
In some cases, the public backlash against an advertising scheme will be enough to get a company to back down. Last week, Facebook was forced to modify a new ad targeting service after consumer groups complained it was too invasive.
Two weeks ago, Facebook introduced "Beacon" ads, which automatically send information to your Facebook friends when you buy things on sites of Facebook partners. After a barrage of criticism, Facebook now won't broadcast your purchase information unless you click an "OK" button for each transaction. The company, however, did not provide a way to opt out of all Beacon ads.
"Behavioral targeting has gone from tracking an individual on one Web site, collecting data about their interests and content they like and what they put in their shopping cart to shadowing their movements around the Internet," said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy. "Facebook brings it to a whole new level, which is the perfect privacy storm."
At this point, I'm not personally bothered when I see targeted ads, but I want to know what type of data is being collected and what is being done with it. And I don't think companies are doing the best job of providing me with that information. I would prefer the opportunity to opt in, and I definitely wouldn't want my activities on the Web to be broadcast to even my closest friends, let alone marketers.
Now, back to ignoring the ads.
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