Online Ads Spark Privacy Concerns, Overreaction

In the age of Facebook, where one is compelled to divulge personal information on a level that wholly eviscerates the concept of privacy, concerns being raised over behavioral advertising seem rather overblown. Using individuals’ browsing habits—both the sites we visit and the searches we perform—behavioral marketing aims to target online advertising to the individual. Advertisers hope that by delivering more-relevant content, users will be more likely to click on the ads. Privacy concerns arise over how the information used to provide behavioral marketing is gathered and how that data can be used, but the concerns seem overblown.

First off, behavioral marketing is not a new phenomenon, either online or with traditional advertisers. Frequent shopper cards, for example, are commonplace among supermarkets and other retail establishments. Similarly, the technologies used to identify internet users’ interests has been around for some time, and their use has grown as Google’s advertising dominance has expanded. Suddenly, however, privacy groups are raising concerns that the data will be misused, or that the government could surreptitiously access the information. If the risks are real, why haven’t these organizations spoken up sooner? After all, their letter to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is dated September 1, 2009. Regardless of how long the risk has existed, when one considers the amount of personal information freely surrendered on the internet, behavioral marketing seems like little to be concerned with.

Be it Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, or YouTube, their myriad competitors, or the innumerable blogs like this one, internet users voluntarily make available far more personal information than advertisers can collect through behavioral marketing. Simply creating an email address reveals something about its owner, while looking for a job through CareerBuilder or provides an individual’s resume for anyone’s review. Rather than focusing on overblown concerns that advertisers will misuse the data they collect, privacy groups should focus on educating internet users about how to opt out of targeted advertising.

Major advertisers such as Google and Yahoo, which together comprise 84% of the online ad market, provide mechanisms in their respective privacy policies that allow internet users to opt out of behavioral marketing, as do many smaller networks. Awareness of these tools, however, is low. In recognition of this problem, the trade group Network Advertising Initiative created a tool that allows users to disable behavioral advertising across its member networks, which include Google and Yahoo. In addition, Google recently recommended that users of its AdSense program amend their privacy policies to include disclosures of AdSense’s data gathering efforts (see my privacy policy for an example). More attention clearly needs to be paid to the existence of the NAI tool and other opt-out methods, and it is there that privacy watchdogs should focus their attention.

When one considers that advertisements appear on the internet with near ubiquity, and that the income derived from those ads allows many sites to offer their services for free, users should appreciate that behavioral marketing, at the very least, provides advertisements they might be interested in clicking on.