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Behavioral Targeting: To Track or Not to Track, That Is the Question

A whole new meaning to net neutrality

If the majority of online users don’t want to have their online search activities tracked, advertisers and search companies are walking a fine line between profit and a huge public relations disaster when they target consumers. Search engines can help advertisers target us, but in doing so, they "invisibly" skew our search results and make our world narrower and less rich. Whatever happened to freedom of information?

Media Post reported on a study by TRUSTe showing that only 11% of the participants were comfortable with online behavioral advertising (Web Users Uneasy With Behavioral Targeting.) In behavioral advertising, our browser behaviors -- where we search, what we search for, and how often we do it -- are tracked in order to provide ads targeted at us based on our perceived likes and buying habits.  Forty two percent of the respondents favored "do-not-track" lists.  Another survey by Consumer Reports had support for do-not-track at almost twice that number, with 81% in favor.

Aside from all the pesky privacy issues, I don't like behavioral advertising because it skews my search results without disclosing how.  I don't want algorithms second-guessing what I'm looking for.  One of the strengths of the Internet is that there is a wildly diverse range of opinions, products, and topics.  I want that richness and randomness of experience.  If we want 'better' results, we should learn to hone our search strategies and keywords, not off-load it on a system whose priorities are not aligned with ours.  I have nothing against people selling stuff and making a profit.  In fact, I'm in favor of it.  But I have no illusions that their goals will neessarily even intersect with mine, much less be in my best interest.  Behavioral targeting gives a whole new meaning to net neutrality.

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I also like the idea that a Google search reflects a broad and random set of preferences, not just mine.  I don't want to do a Google search for media psychology and have my own site come up at the top because I go there a lot to add content.  I want to know if it comes up on top because OTHER people look at it.  I want searches to be a glimpse of a larger social behavior, what John Battelle elegantly describes in one of my favorite descriptions of all times as the 'database of intentions.'

Social media marketers and researchers aren't the only ones who like to put a finger on the pulse of public conversation every now and again.  New technology can impact the quality, quantity, and use of information as it moves across a networked society.   I don't want to have to go to Google Zeitgeist  and pick a topic to get a glimpse of the spirit of the times.  While official search monitoring tools can capture what's on our mind, our mood, and our energy in the aggregate across society. I want the ability to watch the zeitgeist of the country online through different lenses at micro-level based upon what comes up when I search without sponsored links showing up because I recently bought shoes or watched cute cat videos.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn't have the authority to mandate privacy -- like a "do not track" registry --  without a little help from Congress.  Frankly, though, I'd rather have Congress spend it's energy figuring out how to be more fiscally responsible than trying to regulate something they don't understand.

We all know there is no shortage of information.  The shortage is our ability to filter.  This is an increasingly important skill and one it behooves us all to learn.  I am, however, supremely confident that some really smart company will make a search engine where the user who doesn't enjoy the exuberance of information on the web can EASILY specify how much he or she is willing to share to get the search engine's "help."  We shouldn't have to understand the backend of an interface to protect our privacy or get clean searches.  Until then, we'll need to add clearing cookies, caches, and web histories to our media and digital literacy curriculums*. 

When I was in elementary school (at the risk of dating myself), teachers spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time explaining the obtuse Dewey decimal system and the card catalogue at the school library.  I'm in favor of similarly empowering people by encouraging behavioral-targeting-disobedience and preserving the right to 'free search.'

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*TRUSTe has an article on Personal Privacy Tips that is a good place to start.

Web Users Uneasy With Behavioral Targeting http://www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=154667

Battelle, J. (2008). The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. New York: Penguin Books.

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and teaches media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and UCLA Extension. more...

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