Targeted Online Ads: Brilliant or creepy?

With Facebook, MySpace, and Google energetically elbowing each other out of the way in their bid for World Domination, I can’t help but wonder what’s more scary: the fact that Rupert Murdoch might buy one (or all) of them and effectively own the United States? Or the fact that they’re amassing a frighteningly large amount of data on us, based on our behavior online?

When I first read about things like “portable personalization” and “behavioral targeting,” I thought… cool. With all the technology we have at our fingertips these days, there is really no excuse for irrelevant advertising and non-sequetor junk mail. Like this ad from the good folks at “MegaDi*ck,” which landed in my Spam folder earlier this week:

“The latest investigations have discovered, that males with bigger penises are more successful!” 

If I had a penis, perhaps I would care.

But then, I read this little bit of braggadocio from the CEO of NebuAd, which raised >$30 million in venture funds recently:

“We see all of the pages you go to and all of the searches you do,” CEO Bob Dykes said. When combined, that information provides marketers with a “much greater level of insight into what you’re doing,” he said.

Ok, that’s just creepy.

When asked to address the privacy concerns voiced by watch-dog organizations like The World Privacy Forum and the Center for Digital Democracy (who argue that companies like NebuAd should not create profiles on any user without first obtaining opt-in consent—period), Dykes responded by [what else?] downplaying the privacy concerns and emphasizing that the company doesn’t store records of search queries:

“We don’t want the government on our door saying, ‘Tell us all people who do a search on guns,'” he said.

Well, gee, I feel so much better!

Advocates of behavioral targeting are pushing the “opt-in” angle, suggesting that the benefits outweigh the risks: less Spam, fewer annoying, intrusive banner ads and pre-rolls that bear no resemblance to your personal interests or needs. The end result would be a much more enjoyable online experience, where you receive more of the stuff you do care about and less of the stuff you don’t.

But my concern is that most web-users don’t get the whole “opt in” thing to begin with—let alone how the term applies to “behavioral targeting”. My parents, for example, are still trying to figure out where the “forward” button is… and they spawned a GENIUS, for chrissakes!

As a passionate advocate of social media and the democratization of the World Wide Web, I think I’m leaning toward the opt-in only side of the argument. Certainly, there are plenty of tools out there already (and more popping up everyday) that help me find information that’s relevant to my tastes and interests—without having it shoved down my throat by advertisers. Or worse yet, used to put me on some government watch-list.

The final nail in the coffin for me will be when Google-DoubleClick joins forces with Big Pharma. Or Big Tobacco. Or Big Oil. (Or perhaps all three at once with a nice, firm handshake in the Oval Office!…)

Until then, I’m going to hope that my last Google search for “tax evasion” combined with a visit to DishonestAccountants.com doesn’t land me in hot water with my buddies at the IRS.

Wish me luck.

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