AdChoices and Online Interest-Based Advertising

Have you ever thought that sometimes your computer knows you a little too well?

I mean, I know I can open my preferred browser, and I’m already logged into my email account. I click on the address bar and type in “a” and “m” and “enter,” and it takes me to Amazon. I’m already logged into my account there, too. And – what do you know – the items I looked at in my last session are still saved in my cart for checkout. When I go to buy them, I can use Autofill to input my address. It’s super personalized, and it’s pretty convenient.

But in this case, it’s saving information that I already entered. I put in my password a few weeks ago for my email account, put those items in my online shopping the other day cart, and I typed out my address when I registered.

It gets a little creepy when my computer knows information I never explicitly gave away.

Let’s say I was doing a project on Ecuador. I run a few Google searches. A few minutes later, I notice that the advertisements on my Facebook newsfeed are about hotels in South America. Weird.

That’s called interest-based advertising. It works with cookies in your browser to assign you advertisements that are supposed to appeal to someone like you (based on your Internet history). If you

AdChoices is represented by that little triangular icon that you see in the corner of many online banner ads. It looks like this:

adchoices+icon

You still see advertisements if you opt out with AdChoices, of course, but they won’t be chosen specifically because of your browsing history.

The idea is that AdChoices makes interest-based advertising a-okay because it ensures that the consumer is informed about the situation. (Although the education is somewhat biased. If you go to the AdChoices website, the headline is, “Will the right ads find you?”)

It also acts as a kind of social contract – it gives consumers control.

Except that it sort of doesn’t.

It does a poor job of informing people because It’s a small icon in the corner of ads that – let’s face it – they weren’t paying much attention to in the first place.

And if they don’t know what it is, why would they click it? I think it’s actually an Internet rule – if you don’t know what it is, don’t click it. In fact, if you run a Google search of AdChoices, one of the top three results is “Remove AdChoices,” which leads to an anti-spyware site, explaining that AdChoices is “a very questionable program.” That is untrue, but it would still make me nervous about clicking something that’s located inside a banner ad about hair removal.

And if they don’t realize they’re being given a choice, they’re not really empowered to make one.

Here’s what happened when I clicked the icon.

I was taken to a new tab with too much text but some good information.

There was a big button to click that said, “Opt Out.” I clicked it and was taken to another new tab with a lot more text. It took a few minutes to load, but what showed up was pretty interesting. There are 93 companies using interest-based ads on my web browser. 93! And this is the first I’ve heard about it.

I was given the names of all 93 companies and, as promised, the option of opting out of interest-based advertising for any or all of these companies.

I actually didn’t end up opting out because I like interest-based ads. I think they’re convenient, and it’s less annoying for me to see advertisements relevant to my life.

…but the point is that I was able to choose the “stalker-y ads.” I was able to choose, and I’m glad that it’s an option; however, it was entirely too difficult to get to that point.

Apparently AdChoices has existed since 2011, yet I never even knew about this “interest-based,” “Internet-history-based” stuff until 2015. My question is…does everyone know but (like me) nobody cares? Or does no one know? Because if it’s the latter, I think that’s a problem.

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