Does targeted advertising benefit you — or hurt your privacy?
The Digital Advertisers Alliance, a group made up of the nation’s leading media and marketing trade associations, recently launched a public education campaign called “Your AdChoices” aimed at letting the public know about why targeted online advertising (or what they call interest-based advertising) is a good thing.
The DAA has spent the last few years developing online data collection best practices for the advertising industry, called the Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising.
The DAA says that advertising companies participating in their program engage in transparent online behavioral advertising, and do not collect specific types of health and financial information, such as banking account numbers, medical records, pharmaceutical prescriptions, or Social Security numbers.
The DAA’s “Your AdChoices” campaign is an attempt by the advertising industry to convince you that targeted online advertising actually benefits you.
Are Targeted Ads a Good Thing?
The Your AdChoices website would like to convince you that targeted ads are a great thing. First, they make the valid point that advertising pays for nearly all of the free sites on the Internet. Without advertising, consumers would have to pay to use their favorite email, photo sharing, or social media websites.
They also make the point that we should want targeted advertising, as these ads are tailored to our tastes and interests. In other words, they are things we want to see.
And if you still don’t want to receive interest-based advertising, the website allows you to opt-out of targeted ads from the companies who participate in the program.
At first glance, it appears to be a compelling argument.
The Ominous Side of Targeted Ads
The argument for targeted advertising sounds reasonable until you realize what information is being collected when you visit a website and what companies do with this information.
When you visit a website, the site collects your IP address, web browser, operating system, browser security, whether or not you have a firewall, browser plug-ins, the country you are located in, pages visited, referring page, and the visit time. A cookie is used to keep track of you as you visit various site pages. A cookie is a text file that is installed on your computer by the website and used to identity you.
As mentioned above, most websites are supported by advertising, so ads that appear on a website are placed there by advertisers. These advertisers also place a cookie on your computer that allows them to track your behavior across all the sites they advertise on.
Advertisers also use something called web bugs to track you and to create a profile on you, which allows them to track your behavior across many websites over time.
Websites use some of the information they collect about you for some harmless purposes, such as improving their website or customizing their website based on your tastes (think Amazon.com).
However, many websites also sell this personal data they collect about you to third parties, which means that your behavior is known not only by the sites you visit, but other entities with which these sites share their information.
Online advertisers have many ways in which they collect information about you. While they insist they only want to enhance your online experience by ensuring that you see ads targeted to your tastes, they spend millions of dollars each year creating complex user profiles that detail all your tastes and preferences and sell this information to other advertisers.
Do You Value Targeted Ads or Your Privacy?
The question is, are you comfortable with advertisers and third parties knowing this information about you? Are you comfortable with them sharing it with other companies? Are you comfortable not knowing exactly what is being shared about you?
Undoubtedly, targeted advertising helps pay the bills for websites and gives you an enhanced user experience. But at what price?
If you are not comfortable, and you want to opt out from targeted ads from the companies who participate in DAA’s program, you can go here.
However, DAA states that even if you opt out from their targeted ads, it only means that companies in DAA’s program will not serve you targeted ads. They will continue to collect information about you when you visit their websites.
One thing you can do is to disable third-party cookies, which limits the types of information advertisers and websites can collect. However, this does not remove web bugs, since they are part of a web page and not a cookie. Removing cookies prevents the tracker from identifying you as an individual user, but the web bug can still track navigation data using your IP address.
You can also install a plug-in that blocks all third-party content. For example, the Ghostery add-on detects and blocks web bugs.
It is up to each of us to determine whether we value the convenience of online ads that are tailored to our tastes, or whether we are more interested in maintaining our online privacy from companies who would share our information without our knowledge or explicit agreement.
The decision is entirely up to us.