Check your privacy – on the Floor

The federal government is preparing to introduce a bill on the floor of the House of Representatives to determine how and how much information websites and web advertisers can or should collect.  The current option includes an FTC recommendation that would give consumers control over how much information is collected [via a widget or checkbox,] and even allow them to opt out of sharing such data.

The ironic part of this story is that this is one of those big and simple ideas that make the web great, and Congress is about to bungle the whole thing into a legislated, crap-tastic mess.  The key reason sites and advertisers collect data is so that the user is served ads and results that are contextually relevant.  (Note that the verb is “served.”  Not “offered.”  Not “blindsided.”  Not “broadcast.”)  The web’s most identifiable and profitable USP is exactly what the Federal Trade Commission is trying to undo.

Historically, advertising has gotten remarkably better (at the work and the results) as it has gotten more targeted.  In media buying, we used to buy males 18-25.  Now we buy males, aged 19, who live in one of five ZIP codes within five miles of my retail location, like heavy metal and pizza and are thinking of attending a technical institute.  The ads have gotten better.  The ROI has improved for advertisers and the rest of those boys just outside the detailed segment are getting LESS ads that they don’t want to see.

Behavioral targeting is a very good thing.  The web monitors my searches, and the sites I visit, and uses that data to send me RELEVANT and TIMELY marketing messages.  It helps me shop (Amazon welcomes me with “Recommendations for you!”) It helps me fill out online forms.  It sends me email updates on stocks I’m following.  It also saves me from a slew of ads for hosiery, or country music, or geriatric footwear.

If we begin walking down this slippery slope under the oh-so-noble guise of “privacy” and “protection,” we’ll end up hurting marketers, media, agencies and – worst of all – consumers in the process.

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