Mind Your Own Browser

Averting the watchful eyes of online advertisers


| July-August 2011



mind-your-own-browser

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.

Mark Dixon
9/19/2011 11:24:15 AM

I suspect there may be more to this than meets the eye. Studies have shown that only about 16 percent of internet users ever click on an online ad of any kind. Why would advertisers be willing to fund such widespread tracking and surveillance of our internet habits when they know that less than 2 in 10 of us will EVER click on an ad? Business won't pony up the big bucks for a service that doesn't work. So if it's not the advertisers, then who? Who else would want detailed data about our internet usage and could spend millions of dollars to get it?


steve eatenson
6/23/2011 7:37:31 AM

I see opposition parties willing to pay a lot for this kind of information . Maybe that would be a good thing. Our political representatives should be smart enough to behave. I see employers, who could afford it, willing to pay a lot for this information about prospective employees. They already include personality profile questions in their applications. Maybe this would be good. It would make us all behave better or pay the consequences. On the other hand, who hasn't made a poor decision in a weak moment that they later regretted and wished they could take back? Maybe that click of the mouse could follow you for the rest of your life and cause you problems. Americans have fought and died to keep us free from government watching every move we make like has been the rule in autocratic governments like Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Are we moving towards that kind of scrutiny? Are we already there? It's interesting how many things, over time, a society moves towards that they once despised and even fought against. Communists and dictatorships move towards capitalism and democracy. Democracies and capitalist countries move towards socialism and more government control. The pendlum keeps on swinging, searching for balance. Interesting, isn't it?