Behavioral Advertising: The Offer You Cannot Refuse
Author(s): Chris Jay Hoofnagle
Berkeley, we are informing political debates surrounding online privacy
through empirical study of website behaviors. In 2009 and 2011, we
surveyed top websites to determine how they were tracking consumers. We
found that advertisers were using persistent tracking technologies that
were relatively unknown to consumers. Two years later, we found that the
number of tracking cookies expanded dramatically and that advertisers
had developed new, previously unobserved tracking mechanisms that users
cannot avoid even with the strongest privacy settings.
empirical observations are valuable for the political debate surrounding
online privacy because they inform the framing and assumptions
surrounding the merits of privacy law.
Our work demonstrates that
advertisers use new, relatively unknown technologies to track people,
specifically because consumers have not heard of these techniques.
Furthermore, these technologies obviate choice mechanisms that consumers
exercise. We argue that the combination of disguised tracking
technologies, choice-invalidating techniques, and models to trick the
consumers into revealing data suggests that advertisers do not see
individuals as autonomous beings. Once conceived of as objects,
preferences no longer matter and can be routed around with tricks and
In the political debate, “paternalism” is a
frequently invoked objection to privacy rules. Our work inverts the
assumption that privacy interventions are paternalistic while market
approaches promote freedom. We empirically demonstrate that advertisers
are making it impossible to avoid online tracking. Advertisers are so
invested in the idea of a personalized web that they do not think
consumers are competent to decide to reject it. We argue that
policymakers should fully appreciate the idea that consumer privacy
interventions can enable choice, while the alternative, pure marketplace
approaches can deny consumers opportunities to exercise autonomy.