Behavioral Tracking: There Oughta Be a Law

Dennis Faas's picture

Every marketer on the Internet understands that targeting is the name of the game. Better information about website visitors or email lists will produce higher advertising yields. However, there's now a growing group of lawmakers that want to limit that practice. In fact, some want to make using personal data for advertising, or "behavioral tracking", a crime.

All the ruckus seems to have been started by Richard L. Brodsky, a little-known assemblyman in the New York state legislature who recently introduced a bill that would make the use of personal information for advertising a criminal offense.

The bill is gaining support.

Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL have sought meetings with Mr. Brodsky and ad agencies have also joined the fray. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has taken a strong stand against the proposed bill suggesting, in the words of Mike Zaneis, the IAB's public policy vice president, "If you take the fuel out of this engine, you begin to see the free services and content dry up." (Source:

At first glance, one wouldn't think that an assemblyman from New York would merit the attention of such an August group of lobbyists. But, if the law passes in New York state, the ripple effect would cause many companies to limit the practice everywhere, making it a national law. That'll grab the attention of the web companies who rely on advertising and New York isn't the only state looking at such laws -- nearby Connecticut is doing the same.

The concern about Internet behavioral tracking for advertising purposes is contentious. Some would argue that it existed well before the Internet. For example, anybody that's ever received a seed catalog in the mail will see that the catalog has been customized to their location and to their prior purchase history. Moreover, exchanging, renting or buying mailing lists is common direct mail practice. Others would argue that the use of targeted advertising will actually reduce the amount of junk mail a user receives.

There are some seriously frightening aspects to behavioral tracking, too. For one thing, it can be done on a scale that makes the National Security Agency of the U.S. Government (NSA) envious. According to a joint ComScore-New York Times study, Yahoo! was able to track more than 400 billion user events in a single month. By comparison, AOL and Google track about 100 billion events, and Microsoft 50 billion. (Source:

Then, there's the issue of how the behavioral tracking data could be used. Sure, it can ensure that coffee-drinkers only get ads about coffee, and cigarette ads only get sent to those that smoke and that Viagra ads only get sent to men over 50 (or their wives). But it can also provide information to insurance companies about people that have researched the term "cancer" or provide information to credit bureaus about people that have researched "bankruptcy".

Unfortunately, both the uses and the possible abuses are limitless. And, even if Mike Zaneis of the IAB is correct, how much would the Internet really suffer if some of the free services and content did dry up?

Rate this article: 
No votes yet