Transparency important in online tracking

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When some of direct marketing's information-gathering and targeting practices are described in more mainstream forums, words like "insidious" and "Big Brother" frequently come up. Those two terms appeared respectively in Wired and in The New York Times last week in the growing debate around the FTC's meetings with advocacy groups about online privacy, which have led to a "do not track" possibility for Internet marketers.

There's no doubt that some consumers are spooked by the thought of bots trawling not only their surfing habits, but also the contents of their e-mail and IM conversations. It's a point I've raised before, but it's worth saying again that it behooves marketers to put aside their expertise for a moment and think like a consumer - one who may feel they should opt in to advertising
opportunities, rather than being required to opt out.

AOL is one network jumping on the self-regulation train with a campaign educating Internet users how to opt out of online tracking through behavioral targeting. Users who opt out of targeting through any mechanism will still see generic ads, and it will be interesting to see how many such consumers
notice any decline in relevance in the general ads they are served, rather than the more personalized ones they had been receiving beforehand. Particularly for AOL, given its recent purchase of behavioral targeting outfit Tacoda.

It's deals like that one and Google/DoubleClick that contributed to the push from these groups, and the online marketing space is currently enjoying a lively M&A pace. With such activity, of course, comes regulation. An outright do-not-track act might not become a reality. But it's a distinct possibility that online ad networks will be held to more transparent standards, and be required to explain more clearly what information they hold, and what they're doing with it.

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