FOR THE WEEK OF NOV. 26, 2007
Online tracking by marketers draws federal attention
Coverage of electronics or other technology involves more than new products. Challenge class members to find a technology report that focuses on education, business, the environment, privacy or another topic.
The Internet is the subject of a blog or column in many papers. See if students can identify a feature with information about web sites, computers or personal electronics in general.
Web use involves concerns about privacy, security and trustworthiness. Start a discussion about the reliability of traditional media companies, such as newspapers and their sites, compared to online forums, fan sites or user-compiled resources like Wikipedia.
Advertisers peek over our shoulders whenever we use the Internet – commercial surveillance that consumer groups want the government to restrict. For two days this month, Federal Trade Commission regulators listened to critics and defenders of the online practice called behavioral targeting.
Online tracking lets Netflix offer movie recommendations and lets Amazon make product suggestions based on past searches or purchases – useful applications that don’t annoy most people. But companies also track more sensitive information, such as site visits involving medical, political or financial topics. Facebook plans to deliver ads based on user information like college, friends, marital status and hobbies. Google and other firms track search engine entries and even scan what we type in e-mails.
Critics say this "Big Brother"-style prying is a privacy invasion that could spread to cell phones. They want a do-not-track list, similar to the telemarketing do-no-call list, that lets web users remove themselves from tracking systems. AOL will give members that option, it announced this month. Consumer groups also want us to be able to edit the profiles ad networks build.
Watchdog says: "They’re tracking where your mouse is on the page, what you put in your shopping cart, what you don’t buy. A very sophisticated commercial surveillance system has been put in place." -- Jeff Chester, director of Center for Digital Democracy
Marketer says: "Why should the direct mail firms be able to target like that, and we’re not? All because it’s electronic?" -- David J. Moore, chief executive of 24/7 Real Media ad agency
Regulator says: "Providing a consumer with advertising that matches their interests . . . may also come with costs that consumers don’t want to pay." -- Eileen Harrington, FTC deputy director of consumer protection
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