Right now, the United States Congress is debating a bill that, if passed, will severely limit advertising networks’ ability to… well, to advertise. It’s a privacy bill, operating under the assumption that ad networks are out to break down the walls of privacy and open up a flood of new gadgets, gizmos, services, and crap invented by a mom, and drop this flood on your unsuspecting behind.
Now, I understand people’s desire for privacy – I use Firefox, I keep a watchful eye on my cookies, and I really don’t want people snooping about in my private world, but here’s the catch: to an advertising network (like Chitika, where I work), you’re not you; rather, you’re WEB USER XJ3910B4, a random individual with no name whose browsing habits we want to know. This myth that we’re going around trying to find you, individually, by name, and know everything about you, is just that: a myth.
Rather, what the ad networks want to do is provide you with less crappy ads. Face it, ads are a part of the Internet browsing experience: unless you want to pay for the information that you consume, ads will be there. Without them, free websites would cease to be – everything will be pay sites or sites trying to sell you something themselves. So the question becomes, would you rather see ads that might, once in a great while, be something that interests you, or would you rather see Punch The Monkey or Fling The Poo garbage Flash ads for something completely irrelevant for the rest of your Web-browsing existence?
Ad networks don’t want your name. They don’t want your Social Security number, or your address, or the names of all your family members. They want the same thing advertisers have wanted since the dawn of advertising: enough information to give you a relevant message. Browsing history is one thing – if you’ve been to a refinancing website, the ad network is pretty sure you would be interested in ads about refinancing over, say, Acai berries. Chitika (again, where I work – full disclosure) does it by serving ads to your search engine queries. You come to an electronics page due to a search on, say, the new iPhone 3Gs, we’ll show you ads for the iPhone 3Gs (not a BlackBerry, or a Palm Pre, or whatever).
So when you’re reading all of this hooplah about privacy, remember that none of what an ad network tracks is personally identifiable – that’s the most important thing. And also remember, it’s what allows ad networks to phase out the kinds of ads that Oprah sues over and nobody cares about in favor of more relevant listings.