Behavioural Advertising – The Right Way

The FTC has been “up in Google’s grill” with privacy concerns about behavioural advertising ever since Google decided to acquire DoubleClick. Google’s Nicole Wong has been trying hard to defend Google’s online advertising practices.

The bottom line is that right now, everyone’s right. The privacy advocates are right to be concerned when a large company learns too much information about too many people. But in many ways online advertising is going in the right direction, and Google has been at the forefront of this. When so many advertisers thought that the solution to declining ad revenue was more aggressive pop-ups, Google realized that subtle and better-targeted ads, placed where and when people were interested in them, were the real solution.

Lately some advertising providers, including Facebook, have even gone to the point of letting users vote up or down ads. This is leading in a much more positive direction for advertising. (Especially for Facebook, whose advertising targeting is so far particularly bad.)

People complain a lot about advertising, but what we don’t like is annoying, aggressive advertising at the wrong time for the wrong product. We actually appreciate advertising when it’s tasteful and entertaining, and when it’s shown at a time when we can benefit from it. People buy entire magazines mostly for the ads–including fashion and tech gadget mags. Movie trailers are the best example, though–they’re pure advertising, yet many people voluntarily seek out trailers online.

The message: show me ads for stuff I might want! (And get rid of the other crap.)

Back to privacy, though. It’s great that Google, Facebook and so on are finding ways to better match ads to people. That part makes everyone happy. The problem is that they keep that information.

Right now our options are essentially three:

  1. See ads all the time, mostly tasteless annoying ones for things you don’t want.
  2. Block all of the ads with a browser ad blocker (or selectively once an ad has already annoyed you).
  3. Let companies like Google and Facebook take care of finding the right ads for you, and hope they play nice knowing everything about everyone.
What we need is a third option, a combination of #1 and #3: to have the ad selection occur on the client side, meaning that your own computer would make the final decisions. Google would suggest some ads to your browser, and your browser would determine which ads you’d be interested in, and the right time to display them. Of course, Google would still keep track of some of your surfing habits and preferences, but at least some of the precise details would be hidden.
Still, it’s hard to see how well that would work for applications such as GMail. Ultimately this needs to be the consumer’s decision: how much do you care about privacy? And how much do you trust Google? There’s no way you can use GMail without placing a lot of trust in the company behind it. That’s the deal.
Where the government needs to step in, is not in preventing behavioural advertising, which is primarily a great improvement over traditional mass media advertising. Where we need help is in protecting the data that’s collected, and ensuring it doesn’t get used for anything more than choosing which ad to display.