A new study from The New York Times is trying to pin down how just how much consumer data Internet companies have. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and MySpace -- the five largest Web firms -- record at least 336 billion transmission events each month, according to the Times. That does not count their advertising networks.
ComScore conducted the analysis for the Times. Advertising executives say it is the first broad estimate of how much consumer data Internet companies have in their control. The results confirmed what privacy advocates have been warning about: Companies use the information to predict what content and advertisements Web-site visitors are likely to want to see.
"The Web companies are, in effect, taking the trail of crumbs people leave behind as they move around the Internet and then analyzing them to anticipate people's next steps," The Times reported. "So anybody who searches for information on such disparate topics as iron supplements, airlines, hotels and soft drinks may see ads for those products and services later on."
Behavioral Targeting Backlash
Search engines have embraced behavioral targeting, a technique that taps a user's recent activity to serve up relevant ads. But the industry has seen a backlash and there has been talk about government regulation.
Nine groups have asked the Federal Trade Commission to implement a "Do Not Track" list to protect consumers from having their online activities tracked, stored and used by marketers and advertising networks.
The list would require Web advertising companies who place persistent tracking technologies on consumers' computers to register with the FTC all the domain names of the servers involved. Developers would be encouraged to create browser plug-ins so users could download the Do Not Track list and prevent any Web site from collecting behavioral data.
"When you start to get into the details, it's scarier than you might suspect," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights group. "We're recording preferences, hopes, worries and fears."
The Value of Behavioral Targeting
Behavioral targeting is the darling of new media, and advertising executives insist the data is not misused. Mining search data with Web analytics is a far cry from privacy infringement, according to John Lovett, an analytics analyst at JupiterResearch.
"Used in aggregate, search queries provide a wealth of information about customer behavior and can be used to drive relevant results," he said. "Companies that utilize these data are keyed into one of the greatest forms of customer feedback on the Web."
Still, search companies have responded to the privacy camp's objections. Google lets users edit search histories linked to their names. Yahoo is developing a policy that obscures computer IP addresses. And AOL allows users to opt out of targeting.