The media in general – and the New York Times in particular – has been up in arms recently about the commercial uses of supposedly “private” data that is collected about people on the Web. As the story goes, all of us, through our actions, build up a persona on the Internet. We collect cookies, we make purchases, we search for terms on Google, and as a result companies that are in this business are able to make conclusions about who we are and what we like to buy. Your IP address is from the Upper West Side, you often make purchases on Apple.com, and you search for things like “bahamas” and “prius”? You’re probably a wealthy, middle-aged, liberal-leaning professional. Might you be interested in seeing an ad for a Caribbean cruise?
Unsurprisingly, the notion that our actions online can be tracked and later used in an effort to market goods and services to us is under attack. According to an article in yesterday’s Times, Reputation.com can protect you from this scourge by offering a “data vault” that gives you more control over how your information is shared with marketers (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/business/company-envisions-vaults-for-personal-data.html). Congress is opening an investigation into so-called “data brokers” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/25/technology/congress-opens-inquiry-into-data-brokers.html). And just today, the FTC released a report lamenting the data-collection activities of smartphone apps targeted toward children (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/technology/many-mobile-apps-for-children-fall-short-on-disclosure-to-parents-ftc-report-says.html).
Michael Fertig, the CEO of Reputation.com, calls “covert online profiling and scoring, [which may] unfairly exclude certain Internet users from marketing offers that could affect their financial, educational or health opportunities,” Weblining (a play on “redlining”). But I believe this is a dramatic overstatement of the facts at hand. In my view, marketing a Caribbean cruise to a person who has demonstrated through his actions that he has disposable income is no different from, say, the fact that higher-end products are advertised in the Robb Report than in the Metro Times. In both cases, an individual has demonstrated through his actions (in one case, his habit of surfing the Web; in the other, his habit of buying a particular magazine) that he likely belongs to a certain demographic.
This is hardly redlining. It’s no different from the fact that shows like The West Wing are able to charge more for commercial spots than their ratings would suggest because their audiences skew more affluent. And personally, if I have to see ads at all, I prefer to see targeted ones. I have no interest buying in women’s shoes, finding out the “one secret tip that makes dermatologists hate this area mother,” or purchasing a Lincoln. I’d rather see an ad for something my Web-surfing habits have suggested might actually catch my interest.