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FTC’s Probe of Google: Impact on Behavioral Marketing

June 12, 2009

I’ve written here about behavioral marketing and the controversy surrounding it. Well, the FTC’s antitrust probe of Google will help to advance and clarify the conversation. The question: is industry doing enough to create and enforce behavioral marketing standards that protect consumers?

The FTC’s central concern here is transparency and consumer control,” said Jessica Rich, an assistant director in the FTC’s Division of Privacy & Identity Protection division, at a conference last week.. (WSJ 6/10/2009)

At issue in the Google case: Google (and Yahoo, for that matter) track data like users’ search terms and where they go on the Web. The data is typically used in aggregate to help companies spot trends, better target ads and generally provide highly relevant content. But there have been instances, however rare, to help authorities track individuals suspected of criminal behavior. Those examples, say critics, point to the need for greater transparency about how your online data is used and stored. 

Perhaps even more interesting than anonymized aggregation is the question of how social media companies use and store their users’ quasi-public information.

The early lessons from Facebook show that consumers increasingly expect to control their data. Tens of thousands of Facebook users revolted against its Beacon application, a targeted advertising tool that broadcast what they were buying by posting “stories” about it on their status feeds. There were plenty of Facebook users who wanted to know what their friends were buying. But there were also plenty who didn’t want that information public (one poor fellow bought a very nice ring as a surprise for his wife, who subsequently saw it on his Facebook page and asked him who it was for).

Expect to see much more in the news about online privacy and behavioral targeting. The FTC’s probe of Google is part of a much larger concern about consumer protection online.


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