Data Centers

Behavioral targeting: The government wants some answers

It appears Behavioral Targeting and similar applications are more prevalent than anyone knew. It's important for anyone using the Internet to understand this, especially if their ISP has incorporated Behavioral Targeting.

It appears behavioral targeting and similar applications are more prevalent than anyone knew. It's important for anyone using the Internet to understand this, especially if their ISP has incorporated behavioral targeting.

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Michael KassnerIn the article "Behavioral Targeting: What You Need to Know" I covered just the technical-side of behavioral targeting. I even mentioned that I'd leave the ultimate question of "What's it all mean?" to others. It seems the question is starting to be addressed; even the U.S. government is interested. The U.S. government's involvement and other interesting information can be found in Susan Albright's (MinnPost.com) article "Internet Privacy Gets Congress' Attention."

Letters and responses

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass) and his colleagues from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce are concerned enough to have sent formal questionnaires to 33 major Internet players, including Google and Yahoo. The letters asked very pointed questions, for example:

"Has your company at any time tailored, or facilitated the tailoring of, Internet advertising based on consumers' Internet search, surfing, or other use?"

As of today, 25 responses are posted on the committee's Web page, "Responses to August 1, 2008 Letters to Network Operators Regarding Data Collection Practices." You may want to see if your ISP is one of those chosen.

The two responses I focused on were from Yahoo and Google, initially due to their obvious importance. Then it hit me, they're not ISPs. So how do they get behavioral targeting information? That's hard to say as the written responses from the network operators are guarded at best, offering only minimal information. Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post presented some clues as to how Google's behavioral targeting works in the article "Some Web Firms Say They Track Behavior without Explicit Consent":

"Google did note that it had begun to use across its network the "DoubleClick ad-serving cookie," a computer code that allows the tracking of Web surfing.

Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy and government affairs, stated in the letter that users could opt out of a single cookie for both DoubleClick and the Google content network. He also said that Google was not yet focusing on "behavioral" advertising, which depends on Web site tracking.

But on its official blog last week, Google touted how its recent $3.1 billion merger with DoubleClick provides advertisers "insight into the number of people who have seen an ad campaign," as well as how many users visited their sites after seeing an ad. "

Yahoo readily admits to using behavioral targeting. What they don't mention is pointed out by Heather Green and Catherine Holahan of BusinessWeek in their article "Yahoo: Not So Private After All":

"Yahoo! says it won't target you... to your face. On Aug. 8, the Internet giant announced that it will allow users to opt out of behavioral targeting on its site. But in fact, that change only affects behaviorally targeted ads that users see. The company will still collect information on the Web sites visited by unique computers, it just won't serve ads to individual users based on the info.

"This isn't rejecting cookies outright, you are just preferring not to see the ads," says Anne Toth, Yahoo's head of privacy and vice-president of policy. "

Legislation

Rep. Markey wants to introduce legislation touted as an online-privacy Bill of Rights. The bill will place special emphasis on requiring Internet users to opt in, assuring the user makes a conscious choice. This would satisfy many privacy experts, as consumers aren't aware of the opt-out clauses already in use. It will be interesting to follow; even the committee has mixed opinions. Rep Cliff Stearns (R-Fla) feels this kind of legislation will damage small companies, preventing them from reaching customers with their ads. He favors transparent self-regulation as the best solution for all concerned.

Final thoughts

It's too early to tell what the Internet will look like when the dust settles. I'm just glad that all affected parties are becoming aware of behavioral targeting and its implications.

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Michael Kassner has been involved with wireless communications for 40 plus years, starting with amateur radio (K0PBX) and now as a network field engineer for Orange Business Services and an independent wireless consultant with MKassner Net. Current certifications include Cisco ESTQ Field Engineer, CWNA, and CWSP.

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Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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