Google Begins Behavioral Targeting

by Mielle Sullivan, Janus Networks

Google announced last week that its Adsense system would begin using behavioral targeting to determine which ads it displays to users. What exactly is behavioral targeting? Primarily it is gathering information about the types of sites a user visits to place that user into interest and demographic categories. But it can also include actions within a site, such as the types of products a users views on some shopping sites. All behavioral targeting is done through the use of cookies and can’t be used to trace a users particular identity or whereabouts.

Google’s announcement has excited the already contentious internet privacy debate. Rep. Rick Boucher from Virginia said last week that he is working on a bill that would put mandatory guidelines on internet companies to protect user privacy. Though the details of the bill are not yet finalized,Boucher said it will be influenced by how prominent, concise and understandable Google’s policy is.

How internet users feel about behavioral targeting might, in large part, depend on what information they believe is private. Some may not believe their hobbies or interests as protected information, while others may not be comfortable with any information about themselves being gathered. In a recent survey of 1,000 adults conducted byTRUSTe , more than 90% said that internet privacy was a “really” or “somewhat” important issue and 51% said they were uncomfortable with behavioral targeting. However, that number is down from 57% last year, leading some industry spokespeople to believe that, over time, users are becoming more comfortable with behavioral targeting. 70% of respondents said individuals themselves should also be wholly or very responsible for protecting their own privacy, yet 57% said the government was very or wholly responsible for protecting anindividual’s online privacy through legislation or regulation. The survey also said 48% of users delete browser cookies once a week to help protect their information.

Personally, if I am going to be served ads–which is unavoidable–I would rather them be more relevant to me. I am also far more uncomfortable with the fact that Google scans the content of my Gmail for keywords to display ads to me than I am with whatever information my browsing history gives. Yet I think it is important to explore legislation on behavioral targeting to keep policies clear and accessible to all users and determine exactly what information can and cannot be used.

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