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Online ad companies can't stop following you around

Chinese people surfing the Internet in Beijing, 22 September 2007.

There's been a lot of outcry for quite a while now about online advertising companies tracking users as they go around the Internet. People find that creepy. And of course they do -- it's always creepy if you feel like someone's following you around. So this has led to quite a bit of momentum toward the idea of opting out of being tracked.

Now, there are a couple of different ways such a system could happen: either by private industry agreement or by federal law. If you're an advertising company, you'd much rather agree to a set of conditions that you find advantageous than have federal regulations to live by. To that end, several companies operate under a code of conduct spelled out by the Network Advertising Initiative. Part of the agreement is that, if users opt out of being tracked, their information will still be collected but it will not be used to return advertisements based on user behavior.

That might seem strange to you. It certainly does to Jonathan Mayer of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. "I think that's backwards," he says, "When users are concerned about behavioral advertising, the concern is less about seeing an ad and much more around a company you've never heard of, company you may not have a business relationship with and probably never gave explicit consent or any form to tracking your online activities."

The companies say that they can't stop tracking because the technology and cost are prohibitive.

Mayer has been conducting research into how and whether some of these companies are living up to the conditions they agreed to. Mayer says that he found about half of the companies were deleting cookies even though they had not promised to, thus calling into question the argument that doing so is impossible.

We also talk to Erica Newland from the Center for Democracy and Technology. She says there's no solution coming from Washington any time soon.
"There are a number of bills," she says, "Like Do Not Track and more general consumer privacy bills on the table right now, but Washington is busy with other things. So we're not seeing a lot of movement. However, the FTC is coming out with a privacy report within next few months. The Department of Commerce will come out with a privacy report by the end of this year."

If you want to register with the Network Advertising Initiative, you can find them here.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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