Privacy: Online Behavioral Advertising

This post was written as part of a research blogging assignment for Stanford’s Networked Rhetorics class.  For more about this assignment, click here.

On the Internet, lots of everyone’s personal information is collected. Our search terms, personal data we put on the net, visited sites, location, etc. all are collected. Our sensitive information is out there on the Internet. The question is whether it is safe or not. Since there is sensitive information, we, normal people, do not want some strangers to see it. Here comes my research topic on Internet Privacy. This blogpost will explore a small part in that topic. We will look at one possible motivation for other people we do not know accessing our personal information: online behavioral advertising. (The other main cause for privacy issue is employers and government monitoring, which will also be included in the project.)
Behavioral advertising is the act that a service provider collect several information about each user and try to identify characteristics/personality of the user. Then the provider will use that information to supply advertisements which are likely to suits the taste of the user. In the beginning, it sounds good because the user will receive an ads which is supposed to be more interesting than random ads; however, there is a privacy issue. The service provider has to collect an adequate amount of data to verify what the user like and dislike. For example, Google is tracking the sites we visit, collecting our search terms, and reading all our emails. Then, it analyze this information and use Google AdSense to distribute relevant ads content. Other firms are doing the same thing. The information it collects is sensitive, so some are concerned about privacy and urge that this advertising model be regulated.
A report from Center for Democracy & Technology talks about this. Currently, advertising industry is under self-regulation. There is a guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The guidelines require the service provider to tell the user about what information it collected and how it is used, give an option to opt in and out of the service, and collect as less information as possible. The guidelines is not perfect; however, if industry follows it, users’ privacy should be guaranteed to some level. The downside is that this is just the self-regulatory approach, so there is no evident consequence of violating the guidelines. The FTC does have an authority to investigate the violation in case of the service provider violate the agreement that it shows to the users beforehand. But it is not legally required for the provider to state an agreement that follow the guidelines. In addition, there is no active monitoring organization to guard provider’s behavior. These are privacy problems we have now.
Google Inc.,”Google Privacy Policy”, March 11, 2009, <>

CDT, “Online Behavioral Advertising: Industry’s Current Self-Regulatory Framework Is Necessary, But Still Insufficient On Its Own To Protect Consumers”, Dec 9, 2009, <>

Phumchanit (Yiam) Watanaprakornkul, Stanford University
This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Privacy: Online Behavioral Advertising

  1. Cristina says:

    This New York Times article might be useful for you to take a look at, especially given the number of related articles it sites.

    This topic still seems rather broad for a 10-15 page paper. Have you considered ways of narrowing it?

  2. ccrvisitor says:

    You may want to also explore how this is actively a threat to us. Many may look at it as something of a convenience – rather than a proliferation of ads in which you fundamentally have no interest, you are instead (creepily) provided with ads for just the things you wanted to know about. How else are companies using this information that they have collected?

    Will you explore the FTC’s role in all of this or the actual existence of behavioral advertising itself? Though the two topics are certainly related, I agree with the person who commented before me that you do still have a bit of an issue with broadness. Good job, and I am excited to see how your project progresses!

    Luisa Russell

  3. Yiam—

    It seems like you have a really goo idea with the topic, and the Google example for targeted ads is definitely a rich area to explore in terms of privacy concerns.

    One additional area you should look at is how Facebook has changed their privacy policy and given developers access to much more information with the Open Graph API. They are also rolling out changes to make users’ interests public by default. These definitely are privacy concerns and could be good resources for your topic.


  4. Calvin says:

    This topic is one I have often wondered about and I think you are moving in the right direction. It might be appropriate to discuss the day’s old question of “how much is too much in Advertising?”

    Is the type of advertising that Google is pursuing helpful and pertinent, or is it intrusive and unwanted?

    Good Luck!


  5. ccrvisitor says:

    There’s a lot you could do with this. Some questions you could explore:

    Do people dislike AdSense targeted advertising because they don’t want intrusive ads tailored toward their interests? It seems like people would have more of an issue with all the information collected that is used to generate the specific type of ad. What are these people afraid of exactly? Do they not trust Google with the information because they will distribute to third parties or or do they fear that their data could be obtained by hackers or the government? Or is it just a matter of principle that they don’t want their information collected by anyone? Do/should people have the option to stop Google from collecting their personal information with AdSense?


  6. christinealfano says:

    I was struck by the distinction you made between regulation and recommendation. It does seem that one of the interesting issues about internet privacy is that there’s this sense of the slipperiness of it: on the one hand, we’re not always aware of how our privacy is being violated (or infringed upon) and on the other, sometimes we either don’t care or actually benefit from companies using the information they have gathered.

    I agree with the comment above that this is a great topic, but one that could still be brought into sharper focus. It is definitely a very relevant issue for anyone who uses the internet these days!

  7. samirsoriano says:

    Sounds like a very good issue to write about. As far as privacy goes – takes a look at ad ReTargeting. ReTargeting has a company’s banner ads follow a person after he/she has left the company’s site. It’s totally safe from a privacy standpoint, but check out to learn a bit more about ReTargeting.

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