Shielding consumers from privacy-breaching ISP tracking

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So who cares if my Internet service provider tracks my Web surfing behavior or e-mailing to better target advertising? After all, won't that result in a more relevant user experience?

Well, not exactly and here's why. The lines between content, context and advertising are becoming increasingly blurred, and as a result the consumer is caught dead in the middle with increasingly less and less control over the Internet's most prized commodity: his own information. I'm referring to the growing reality that a process called deep packet inspection (DPI) is being used to build revenue streams based on your discreet — and what should be private — online habits.

DPI is the act of intercepting your online traffic and analyzing everything you do to build marketable profiles for advertisers. Technically, this could include any and everything that is transmitted through your ISP: keystrokes, Web pages, instant messaging, e-mail and so on. Of course, you'll never see a dime of that direct monetary benefit the way these companies are behaving today. Oh, and what about all that invaluable marketing data that could be sold based on a completely unfettered and omniscient view of your personal online habits? That's a gold mine in and of itself. This is powerful because it equates to building a profile about you based on everything you do online.

Current ad networks and Web sites look at only what you're doing on the Web site itself or perhaps within a network of Web sites and, hence, are not nearly as invasive as the wealth of private information that is represented by your each and every move while online. While an emerging practice, the stakes couldn't be greater and a number of companies are racing to commercialize user-profiling technologies at the expense of user privacy.

Globally, online advertising spend is expected to reach $25 billion in 2008 and projected to top $50 billion in four years. All trends point towards a continuing shift of ad spend towards performance-based campaigns, and thus the industry's unquenchable thirst for better targeting and access to users' data to build that targeting.

If DPI or related practices could generate incremental performance efficiencies, then ad rates would increase, and so would the resulting revenues. Just for sake of argument, assume 10% can be added to the bottom line by adding an order of magnitude to the user data and insight used for ad targeting. That represents a multibillion dollar opportunity — and exactly the set of change agents driving some organizations into objectionable privacy practices.

There are lots of moving parts to this equation, including recent government intervention into a specific case involving a domestic ISP, consumer watchdog groups, and even pundits of net neutrality. All told, these arguments threaten to upset the value-chain of broadband access and affect every constituent that touches it. What's missing in all of this is the consumer, who really should be empowered to participate in this value chain. So while everyone is fighting it out and strategizing how to make money off of them, some consumers are part of a viral movement to simply make everything they do online anonymous, thereby making all such efforts completely ineffective.

A variety of companies offer anonymizing applications, proxies and VPNs (virtual private networks). Some are free, others paid, and all have unique feature sets. There's lots of tech speak here, but the point is that tools that thwart tracking and shield consumer privacy are becoming increasingly accessible and represent an organic shift toward doing what a commercial industry has been unable and unwilling to do: Ensure my privacy and give me a choice as to how I barter my information.

Mark Smith is COO at AnchorFree.

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