Legal Protection Against Online Stalking by Advertisers

Cookies at Christmas bring memories of my parents leaving cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve. Of course, my dad ate the cookies after I was asleep. He may have chuckled, "Ho, ho, ho" as he climbed into bed.

Today, there are cookies of a different sort in the Internet world. They are bits of code that web sites leave on our computers so that what we browse and buy can be tracked. Data aggregator companies sort the data, and their software helps them to sort consumers into some 30,000 market buying segments. For example, I might be listed as a moderate spender, over 50, and interested in travel, flying, photography, and fly fishing. Retailers then bid for the right to target me with merchandise in these categories when I click on, say, a travel site for fly fishing in West Virginia.

The retailer might pay one or two cents for the right to have me bombarded within seconds with ads that are supposed to pique my interest. Such ads can be annoying, but worse can happen. Knowing my interests and the collection of information about me allows retailers to send ads to me for merchandise or travel that have been increased in price. They know I might bite because of my interest in the subject.

In essence, there is a hidden auction system going on, and we can't control it. We become anonymous digital profiles on the internet. Unfortunately, companies through their computers can now link our anonymous profiles with our real identities. This is computer stalking by corporations bent on selling us something. We can stop this in two ways. Only about 15% of Americans know it, but you can disable computer cookies that track your data. The other way is to write the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules to support the Obama administration's call for the advertising industry to develop a Do Not Track privacy system to let us opt out of internet tracking, much like the Do Not Call registry for telephones.

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