They Know Where You Browse, but Is Online Spying the Way Forward?
Beale, Claire, The Independent (London, England)
While most media are crouching, buttocks clenched, praying that recession won't bite, all things digital are roaring ahead.
There are new stats to prove it. Online advertising is now the third-largest advertising medium in the country, topping 2.8bn. That's bigger than press classified advertising - in part because it's eaten into press classified advertising. It's also bigger than regional newspapers. In fact, online advertising has grown nine times faster than the ad sector as a whole. It's all terribly impressive.
Still, ask yourself this question: what's your favourite internet ad? Which banner or skyscraper is so enticing, looks such fun, that it stops you in your searching tracks, compels you to put aside your eBay compulsion or halt your holiday hunt in order to purr over a new microsite trying to sell you a car or a mobile phone?
I can't think of one myself. Or at least I can't think of one that I've ever actually seen as I've been pootling around the web. I've seen some great internet ads on press releases and on awards entries, but I've never naturally stumbled across one. I must be using all the wrong websites.
Anyway, imagine if the only ads you saw on the web were for things you were actually interested in. It's coming; behavioural targeting is the next leap forward for web advertising, and it is already proving controversial.
You may have read BT's recent confession that it carried out secret trials on 18,000 broadband customer accounts to examine web traffic and then to serve targeted ads on a number of websites.
Now, leaving aside for the moment questions of legality (according to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, it's an offence to intercept web traffic without warrant or consent), the consensus is that this type of carefully targeted advertising will transform the internet's role as a commercial tool.
BT's test was conducted with a technology company now known as Phorm. Interestingly, if you search for Phorm in Google, the second listing you'll find is for a site called badphorm.co.uk, a sort of anti-Phorm site.
Basically, Phorm is collaborating with the UK's three biggest internet service providers - BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk - to offer target advertising: ads that are tailored to the lifestyles and interests suggested by the things you choose to look at online. The service can profile your browsing behaviour, though it says it does this without storing any personal information that could identify you.
Hugo Drayton, Phorm's UK chief executive, says his company's Open Internet Exchange (OIX) system offers "improved yield and volumes for publishers; improved targeting and ROI [return on investment] for advertisers; more relevance, enhanced privacy, protection from fraud, plus an improved online browsing experience for consumers".
Badphorm.co.uk sees things a little differently: "Three of the UK's largest ISPs have decided to sell your private browsing history to an advertising broker." It calls on Phorm to make its service explicitly opt-in, rather than opt-out. A recent leader in this newspaper on the subject of services like Phorm said: "It is vital that consumers' right to privacy is protected. Service deals should be transparent. Users should not be forced constantly to consider the secondary implications of going to any given website."
Passions are running high. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, has waded in, warning that tracking someone's internet usage could be put to damaging use. But the rise of the internet means that advertisers and media owners will continue to exploit its potential as much as legally permissible. It's naive to think otherwise.
Remember, all advertising is targeted - to varying degrees of effectiveness. The ads in The Independent are there because the advertiser in question wishes …
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Publication information: Article title: They Know Where You Browse, but Is Online Spying the Way Forward?. Contributors: Beale, Claire - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: April 14, 2008. Page number: 14. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.