The Wall Street Journal is running a menacing series of articles this week about online advertising. The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets, reads the title to the opening piece, which goes on to describe "new" technology that has been around since 1994.
The ultimate nefarious goal of all this "spying", of course, is to show consumers ads that are better targeted to them. The Journal shares the story of Cate Reid, a 17 year old who spent time on Yahoo (YHOO) researching tips for how to lose weight. What does Yahoo's ad network do with this information?
"Every time I go on the Internet," Reid says, she sees weight-loss ads. "I'm self-conscious about my weight," says Ms. Reid, whose father asked that her hometown not be given. "I try not to think about it--. Then [the ads] make me start thinking about it."
Yep, it's mind control.
Cookies, the little bits of information stored by your web browser, are the secret agents the Journal's Julia Angwin sets out to unmask. Cookies allow websites to remember visitors. This makes it possible for Amazon (AMZN) to store your password or the contents of your shopping cart. Without them, commerce on the Web would be virtually impossible.
The thornier issue is how much information should be shared with the third party advertising networks that exist on these sites. Michael Learmonth, a senior editor for Ad Age, wrote a great piece recently entitled The Pants That Stalked Me On The Web. Even as someone who studies the business for a living, Lermonth found the level of tracking in today's online ads creepy.
The important difference is that Learmonth doesn't fall back on the scare tactics employed by the WSJ. With the FTC taking a hard look at a "No Tracking" policy for online advertising networks, this kind of yellow journalism could have a major impact on how the business develops. Consumers deserve to be informed, not intimidated, about how behavioral targeting impacts their privacy.