mind your behavior

Have you ever heard of “behavioral” advertising?  Well if you haven’t, you will, but you won’t.  Huh?

Lemme explain.  You get ads online all the time, of course.  Most of the time, you don’t even look at them.  And when you do look at them, a lot of the time you are completely uninterested in them.

The ad industry wants to make those ads more interesting to you, which is a good thing.  But in order for them to make ads better for you, they have to know more about you.  And they find out more about you by watching what you do on the Internet – they track where you go, what you look at, who you talk to.  When they give you ads because of your behavior, that’s called “behaviorally targeted” advertising.

It sounds kind of creepy, doesn’t it?  Most Americans – in any age group – do not like the idea of behavioral advertising.  But the ad industry knows that it works, it actually does give you ads you like, that’s why they’re spending a billion dollars on it this year.

A friendly symbol that says you're being watched.

And they want to explain to you why you should accept behavioral ads.  But since they know the idea is creepy, they don’t want to use the word “behavioral” anymore.  Instead, they’re going to use different words and cute little symbols to explain the concepts to you in friendly terms.  So you are going to hear about behavioral advertising, but you’re not going to hear the words “behavioral targeting” if they can help it.

I’m trying not to be cynical about this.  I want to believe that there is a way for advertisers to use information about me to give me things I like, without making me feel violated.  But I don’t believe that the right way is for the industry to decide how to treat my information.  And I don’t want the government to decide for me either.

I want to decide for myself.  I want to be in control of my own information.  I want to know what they know about me.  I want to be able to see it, change it, hide it from them if I want.  Hey, I’m not a control freak – but it’s my stuff, shouldn’t I be the one who gets to watch the watchers?  Shouldn’t you?

who watches the watchers?

Before I say anything else, let me say that I believe that advertising on the Internet enables a lot of good things. Since websites can make money from advertising, people get lots of great stuff for free on the web.  I like free news and reference, free photo and video sharing, free games and social networking – I understand that it’s all free because advertisers pay the websites instead of me.

But some advertising can get pretty creepy.  I don’t like the feeling that I’m being watched all the time, without any control over my own information.  Sometimes it seems like the advertisers follow me everywhere I go.  Do you ever get that creepy feeling?  When you visit a website about sports, how come the next website you’re on knows that you like sports?

Advertising that is based on watching your Internet activity is called “behaviorally targeted” advertising.  Most people do not like the idea of behavioral ads, and even the ad industry admits these ads can be creepy.  The Federal Trade Commission has taken a strong interest in this topic, spurred on by various consumer groups.  Aware of the concerns, the ad industry is trying to stay ahead of government regulation, with voluntary principles and awareness campaigns.  But none of this will stop the growth in behavioral ads:  this year, online advertisers will spend over $1 billion on “behaviorally targeted” advertising, and that amount is expected to double in the next four years

The government, the ad industry, and even consumer groups offer incomplete solutions.  The focus that they have is on “transparency” and “choice” – but what will that mean for you?  The best possible outcome of all their work is that hundreds of ad networks make it very clear that they are watching you.  And then you get to go to 400 different websites, read thousands of words, and make hundreds of choices.  That’s not easy – you probably can’t take the time to watch who’s watching you.

Bynamite is taking a different approach to the problem of creepy advertising – we think it should be easy for you to be in control.  We accept that advertising can lead to good stuff, even when it involves tracking consumer behavior.  But we insist that consumers should be in control of their own information – you should always be able to see, change and delete what advertisers know about you.  We’ll be launching a preview of our service in the coming weeks, so stay tuned . . .