Google's Behavioral Ad Targeting: How to Reclaim Control

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Google has unveiled a new behavioral targeting system that'll read your browsing history, then cater ads based on where you've been. While Google sells the concept as an user-oriented improvement that'll bring you "more interesting" and "useful" content, you may want to consider the privacy implications of having your surfing habits monitored and monetized.

Behavioral Ad Targeting

The advertising system, announced at the Official Google Blog on Wednesday, increases Google's level of advertising customization. The company's AdSense network (which generates the ads within Google Search, Gmail, and other Google properties) had already been selecting ads based on your current activity: If you searched for "video card," for example, the ads on the right would be related to computer components. Now, however, the system will delve deeper, using data from the past in addition to the present.

"Advertisers need an efficient way to reach those who are most interested in their products and services," says Susan Wojcicki, Google's VP of product management. "Publishers can generate more revenue when they connect advertisers to interested audiences."

(InfoWorld columnist Dan T... -- er, sorry, Robert X. Cringely -- counters with the following observation: "What gets me is the notion that ads based on my surfing habits are inherently more interesting. They're still ads. Even when I'm shopping for something, the ads are the last place I look.")

The "interest-based" ads, as Google calls them, will initially appear on YouTube and other Google partner sites.

Here's something else of interest: It was less than two years ago that Wojcicki went on the record as saying that Google chose not to participate in behavioral targeting "for a variety of reasons," noting that the company was "very careful" about "traditional behavioral targeting."

Privacy Concerns

Privacy advocates are already lashing out at the change. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) calls the move a "disaster" and has asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to intervene. The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), meanwhile, is asking Google to leave users opted out of the program by default, then allow them to opt in if they so choose.

Google representatives downplayed the need for such an idea, insisting that the majority of users would "prefer to see more relevant advertising." Oh, yeah -- there was one other teensy little consideration, too:

"Offering advertising on an opt-in basis goes against the economic model of the Internet," Google spokesperson Christine Chen told the IDG News Service, operated by PC World parent company IDG.

Taking Back Control

So what can you do? Much like with the people search engines I examined this week -- they pull up detailed dossiers of your online footprint, including such things as personal photos, music tastes, and shopping lists -- Google's new advertising system can serve as a kick in the pants for all of us to think carefully about what information we're sharing, most often unintentionally. Google isn't the first company to experiment with behavioral targeting (paging Yahoo, paging Microsoft), and odds are, it won't be the last.

Coming out of our people search story, we looked at the options available for taking back control and protecting your personal data within that realm. As is the case with those services, behavioral targeting systems require you to take the initiative in order to keep your information from being shared.

Here are some places to start:

· If there's one site you visit, it should be the Network Advertising Initiative's Opt-Out Tool. NAI, a consumer awareness organization, has created a handy utility that lets you see more than two dozen ad networks that may be pulling your info (even though you've probably never heard of most of them). The page shows you which companies have cookies set on your computer, then offers you an option to turn them off.

· Google's ad system has its own opt-out page here.

· Yahoo's targeting program lets you say "no thanks" here.

· Microsoft's personalized ads can be shut off here.

Bear in mind that "opting out" actually just sets a cookie in your browser that states your preference. If you clear your cookies or switch to a different browser, you'll have to repeat the process. With talks currently under way in Congress to regulate behavioral ad targeting, though, things could get easier in the future.

Until then, it's up to you to take an active role in deciding how much of your information you want being shared. If you don't stand up and make that decision, rest assured that it will be made for you -- and the companies acting on your behalf may or may not have your best interests in mind.

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