An article today on the Washington Post site—FTC Wants to Know What Big Brother Knows About You–discusses the United States Federal Trade Commission’s ongoing review of behavioral targeting practices among companies such as Yahoo! And Microsoft. While many ad-supported websites have used content-specific advertising—displaying ads for dog food when a user performs a search for “puppies”—behavioral targeting takes this one step further, looking at users’ actions across different websites. Supporters of the practice argue that this deeper understanding of users’ interests leads to more accurately targeted ads, higher ad revenue for publishers, and the continued growth of free online content. Although the files on users’ behavior allegedly assure anonymity, assigning numbers rather than names to particular users, this seems like a flimsy defense of consumers’ privacy.
How hard can it be, after all, to link a set of searches and transactions to a particular individual? Moreover, what motivation would companies like Yahoo! have to maintain this screen of privacy? Google attempted to distance itself from behavioral targeting last year in the media, after the company came under fire for its purchase of online advertising giant DoubleClick. Now that the deal is complete, however, and other giants like Yahoo! and Microsoft are increasingly making use of behavioral targeting strategies, will Google continue to take the high road?