Many cheered last week’s announcement that users can opt out from collection of their browser history by major companies like Google and Yahoo. The announcement was an attempt to derail government actions designed to insure online privacy by creating a “bill of rights”. Here’s what an industry group said about the changes:
As part of the announcement, an online advertising coalition associated with Google Inc, Yahoo Inc and Microsoft Corp said its members agreed to placing “Do Not Track” technology in Web browsers, something the Federal Trade Commission has been advocating since 2010.
And, certainly, the issue of online privacy is hotly contested between users who want more assurances that businesses are protecting their privacy and businesses who require information to provide better service to visitors.
Privacy and Targeted Advertising
One of the most hotly contested aspects of privacy protection is targeted advertising. Currently, browsers and other companies use your browser history (the trail of sites your visited and terms you’ve searched) to serve up targeted ads.
Often, browser history is used quite literally, in that the browser detects recent searches for car insurance and serves up ads for car insurance to ads on websites you visit, for example.
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By targeting advertising to what you find interesting, the business optimizes chances you’ll click on the advertisement to learn more about the advertised product. Targeted advertising also provides value to consumers by suggesting options they might not have considered.
In other cases, browser history is used to develop a composite of the individual based on websites he/ she visits and topics he/ she searches. Then, targeted advertising is served up based on this composite. Creating a composite is a little trickier, and likely generates lots of invalid composites — for instance, Google thinks I’m a 34 year old male instead of a 50+ female, based on the topic I search and websites I visit. You can find out who google thinks you are here.
What you need to know about online privacy and targeted advertising
Now, it might be a little annoying or creepy to have targeted advertising appear when you visit webpages. And, some find it a little disconcerting that someone knows what we’re doing online. I’m not dipping my toe into that debate.
Realistically, the only protection you have is to avoid the internet all together and, for many of us, that’s not an option. I remember what life was like before the internet and I’m not willing to go back there.
Short of leaving the internet, you’re only real option is to be careful where you go online. And recognize that there’s little anyone can do with the vast amount of information gleaned from all those online searches and websites visited unless someone specifically “has it in for you” AND has access to the data — in which case you have bigger things to worry about.
And, don’t think opting out of targeted advertising means you WON’T see advertising. You’ll still see exactly the SAME AMOUNT of advertising — it just won’t be targeted advertising. So, now, instead of seeing ads for things you MIGHT be interested in, you’ll see ads for things that don’t interest you at all. Instead of seeing cool ads from Zappos or Chicos, where I shop frequently, I’ll see stupid ads for trucks and leather pants — things I have no interest in ever buying.
Advantages of Browser History
Besides seeing targeted advertising, your browser history and the cookies that enable browser history have some advantages.
First, remember that cool website you visited last week. It had a great recipe for banana bread. Or that website with the cutest shoes. Well, those are all gone now — erased with your browser history. Good luck finding those shoes again.
Or forget your password for the website where you ordered those amazing pants. You’d love to track your order or reorder them, but, alas, the password is gone and the company doesn’t provide easy access to find a forgotten password. Those were in your cookie.
I guess you have to weigh your options — ease of use and utility against privacy protection. Which will you choose? You have until tomorrow to decide.