Mind Your Own Browser
Averting the watchful eyes of online advertisers
Richard Borge / www.richardborge.com
Most of us depend on free web services, from Google to Facebook, but unless you’re careful, using them has a price: your privacy. Web advertisers, which keep these sites in business, track what you do online in order to deliver targeted, attention-grabbing ads. Your web browser reveals a surprising amount about you, and advertisers are keen to find out even more.
A new draft report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends the creation of a “Do Not Track” mechanism that would let Internet users choose, with the click of a button, whether to allow advertisers to track them. While this would offer better privacy controls than exist currently, the FTC’s approach falls short, because tracking technology is interwoven into our most popular websites and mobile services. Without tracking, they simply don’t work.
Few people realize that many web ads are tailored using huge amounts of personal data collected, combined, and cross-referenced from multiple sources—an approach known as “behavioral advertising.” Advertisers ferret out clues to where you live, where you work, what you buy, and which TV shows you watch, then refine their ads accordingly.
Behavioral advertising works. A study conducted by Microsoft Research Asia found that users were up to seven times likelier to click on targeted ads than on nontargeted ones. Targeted ads earn much more for websites—an average of $4.12 per thousand views versus $1.98 per thousand for regular ads, according to a study commissioned by the Network Advertising Initiative, a trade group that promotes self-regulation.
While many people are simply opposed on principle to unrestricted tracking, there are real risks involved. Without safeguards, tracking techniques could be exploited to steal identities or to hack into computers. And the big databases that advertisers are building could be misused by unscrupulous employers or malicious governments.
Over the past 15 years the United States has developed a peculiar approach to protecting consumer privacy. Companies publish detailed “privacy policies” that are supposed to explain what information they collect and what they plan to do with it. Consumers can then choose whether they want to participate.
The FTC report says that this model no longer works (if it ever did). “Many companies are not disclosing their practices,” FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz says. “And even if companies do disclose them, they do so in long, incomprehensible privacy policies and user agreements that consumers don’t read, let alone understand.”
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