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What to do about being tracked online?


Advertisers have been talking about the improvement in ad targeting and how it benefits everyone, yet consumers ask not to be tracked.  In real life we appreciate it when someone pays attention and tailors their messaging to us, why not online?  Can something be done to fix it?

We get profiled in real life all the time.  Some of that is welcome, some of it is not and some of it is illegal.  A lot of the profiling is due to our conscious choice.  Those who drive a Ferrari know that people perceive them differently than those who drive a Prius.  

What is broken in online tracking is that the user has no clue and no control over how they are being tracked.  A few years ago a friend of mine sent me a link to check out a dress from one of the new fashion designers. The designer had a very edgy name.  Later in the week I was doing a demo to a customer in the same browser and outlook.com had a big banner on the side of a young woman in a revealing dress with a raunchy tagline.  I felt out of control and it was an unnecessary distraction. Thankfully everyone got a chuckle out of it and we moved on.  I had no choice but to go clean out my cookies and history to see if that’ll help.

We have the technology to give users the control they need.  Google already has a screen for ad preferences, but it’s too hard to figure out why a particular ad is shown.  Apple and Firefox are starting to block what apps and website can share between them, but that stops the good and the bad ad targeting.  Governments started forcing websites to ask people whether they want to accept cookies, but cookies are a base technology on the web and regular consumers don’t understand what they are being asked.  

What if ad networks provided a link on their ads that explains to the user why they are seeing it.  The explanation can then take the user to the right preferences screen? It’s possible that ad networks that do not have that traceability might perform better than the ones that do.  This is where ad networks should welcome some regulation.  Leveling the playing field will ensure that everyone plays by the same rules.  The regulation doesn’t have to be technology specific like the cookies law, which is turning out to be pretty useless.  It can just simply state that any advertisement shown needs to have a link that explains why its shown and the ability to turn it off or erase that setting.  Giving the control back to users can help the large ad companies shake off the creepiness aura they have and make everyone a little bit happier.

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