By Chris Sorenson, Macleans
Where advertisers once simply threw up banner ads on high-traffic websites and hoped for the best, behavioural tracking now allows them to beam individually tailored ads, in real time, to users just as they land on a web page. The decision to show you an ad can be based on your geographic location, what else you’ve looked at online or, in some cases, educated guesses about your age, income and marital status. It’s called “behavioural tracking,” and it has ballooned in recent years. A recent study by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California found the web’s top 100 sites left a total of 5,795 cookies on its test computer this year, compared with 3,602 three years ago, a 60 per cent increase.
Nor is it just ads that users need to worry about. The same technology also makes it possible for companies to target consumers with “personalized” content, products and even prices on the websites they visit. Such tactics are not illegal, but they strike many as inherently unfair, not to mention a bit creepy. And it all adds up to a massive shift in the balance of power on the web—one that increasingly favours big corporations at the expense of consumers and their privacy.
Behavioural tracking’s potential problems are already on the radar of regulators. Last December, Canada’s privacy commissioner launched new guidelines for the industry that seek to prevent the use of technologies making it difﬁcult to opt out of behavioural tracking, or the tracking of children. In the U.S., meanwhile, there are calls for the government to set up an official “do not track” mechanism, but so far there is relatively little agreement on how it would work.
Many in the industry say the concerns are overblown. They argue behavioural tracking has so far served mostly to provide web users with a better overall experience. One thing is certain: for individual users, the web is rapidly becoming a much smaller place. Personalized content. Individually tailored ads, products and services. That’s not necessarily a bad thing considering that the total number of web pages indexed by search engines now totals nearly seven billion—far too many for any single person to explore. But users clearly need more transparency and control over the process.