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Targeted Advertising and Online Tracking Remain Front Page News

30 August 2010

Two national newspapers today included items on targeted advertising, a further indication that online tracking remains a hot topic.  In an article on the front page of the New York Times entitled  "Retargeting Ads Follow Surfers to Other Sites"  the reporters note that "[b]ehavioral targeting has been hotly debated in Washington, and lawmakers are considering various proposals to regulate it."

People have grown accustomed to being tracked online and shown ads for categories of products they have shown interest in, be it tennis or bank loans.

Increasingly, however, the ads tailored to them are for specific products that they have perused online. While the technique, which the ad industry calls personalized retargeting or remarketing, is not new, it is becoming more pervasive as companies like Google and Microsoft have entered the field. And retargeting has reached a level of precision that is leaving consumers with the palpable feeling that they are being watched as they roam the virtual aisles of online stores.

The article quoted an Advertising Age writer who said “If the industry is truly worried about a federally mandated ‘do not track’ list akin to ‘do not call’ for the Internet, they’re not really showing it.”   The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), comprised of more than 460 media and technology companies responsible for selling 86% of online advertising in the United States. disputes that they are not addressing the privacy issues associated with online tracking and targeting, as indicated  here.

A Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Emory University Economics Professor Paul Rubin paints a very different picture from the New York Times article.  The piece is entitled "Ten Fallacies About Web Privacy" and in summary form, here is Professor Rubin's list of privacy fallacies with excerpts of why he thinks the propositions are false. 

1) Privacy is free...  The more privacy consumers have, the less information is available for use in the economy. Since information helps markets work better, the cost of privacy is less efficient markets...

2) If there are costs of privacy, they are borne by companies... [C]onsumers get tremendous benefits from the use of information [and bear a cost from regulations designed to protect their privacy]...

3) If consumers have less control over information, then firms must gain and consumers must lose...  [W]hen information is used for other purposes—for example, in credit rating—then the cost of credit for all consumers will decrease...

4) Information use is "all or nothing." ... [S]ervices will be lower-quality and less valuable to consumers as information use is more restricted...

5) If consumers have less privacy, then someone will know things about them that they may want to keep secret....  [W]e are not used to the concept that something can be known and at the same time no person knows it. But this is true of much online information...

6) Information can be used for price discrimination (differential pricing), which will harm consumers.  [If] price discrimination makes it possible for firms to provide goods and services that would otherwise not be available (which is common for virtual goods and services such as software, including cell phone apps) then consumers unambiguously benefit...

7) If consumers knew how information about them was being used, they would be irate.  [C]onsumers don't bother to learn about information use on the Web precisely because there is no harm from the way it is used...

8) Increasing privacy leads to greater safety and less risk. The opposite is true....  Think of being called by a credit-card provider and asked a series of questions when using your card in an unfamiliar location, such as on a vacation...

9) Restricting the use of information (such as by mandating consumer "opt-in") will benefit consumers. In fact, since the use of information is generally benign and valuable, policies that lead to less information being used are generally harmful...

 10) Targeted advertising leads people to buy stuff they don't want or need. This belief is inconsistent with the basis of a market economy... 

Clearly, when Congress returns from its recess and the privacy advocacy community returns from vacation, and as the FTC prepares its long-awaited report following a series of privacy roundtables earlier this year, debate over online tracking, self-regulation and the need vel non of government regulation will heat up.

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