Time for a Web Do-Not-Track List?

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

Tired of getting tracked as you browse the Web, and being stalked by the same ad following you from site to site? Maybe it's time to heed the calls for a "Do-Not-Track" list, much like the federal "Do Not Call Registry" that lets you be placed on a list than bans telemarketers from calling you.

The New York Times has an excellent article describing the so-called "remarketing" technique --- which is really nothing more than ad-stalking --- in which information garnered from you at one Web site about your shopping or browsing habits follow you around the Web. It tells the story of a woman who looked at a pair of shoes on Zappos.com, and then found that when she browsed the Web, for weeks she would see ads for those shoes.

She's far from the only person to complain about the technique. My wife has noticed the same thing. An acquaintance complained about it to me this weekend. You've probably been a target as well.

The technology for ad-stalking is fairly simple, and uses cookies. The key to its growth is the growing size of ad networks that span sites, because normally individual Web sites don't share cookies, unless they have some kind of reciprocal relationship. Ad networks serve multiple sites, and so the same cookie can be used on many different Web sites.

The Times notes that the technique has been around for a long time, but that it really took off when Google began using it. The Times says that Google started testing the technique in 2009, and then launched it to all advertisers in its AdWorks network in March of this year.

Ad-stalking is a variant of behavioral marketing, which the Times describes as a "practice under which a person who has visited NBA.com, for instance, may be tagged as a basketball fan and later will be shown ads for related merchandise."

There's evidence that people are fed up enough with ad-stalking and behavioral marketing that the federal government is considering taking action. The Times article notes:

Behavioral targeting has been hotly debated in Washington, and lawmakers are considering various proposals to regulate it. During the recent Senate hearing, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said she found the technique troubling. "I understand that advertising supports the Internet, but I am a little spooked out," Ms. McCaskill said of behavioral targeting. "This is creepy."

When Advertising Age, the advertising industry publication, tackled the subject of remarketing recently, the writer Michael Learmonth described being stalked by a pair of pants he had considered buying on Zappos.

"As tracking gets more and more crass and obvious, consumers will rightfully become more concerned about it," he wrote. "If the industry is truly worried about a federally mandated 'do not track' list akin to 'do not call' for the Internet, they're not really showing it."

Unless Google and others get ad-stalking under control, don't be surprised if one day you'll be able to opt out of being stalked by ads.

This story, "Time for a Web Do-Not-Track List?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon