Imagine a creepy guy wearing a ski mask and a trenchcoat, following you around and scribbling down every place you visit, every item you peruse, and every action you take. Now and again, he races in front of you, opens the trenchcoat, and flashes an ad based on something you just checked out.
That's behaviorally targeted advertising, a multi-billion-dollar industry that shows no signs of stopping. Today both Mozilla and Google offered ways to tell that creepy guy to buzz off.
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Mozilla has proposed a new "don't track me" feature for Firefox that would broadcast a Do Not Track HTTP header to online advertisers, telling them to back off, Jack, and not follow you around the InterWebs (though whether the Web advertiser abides by your request is another matter). Meanwhile, Google announced an extension for Chrome that allows you to keep your opt-out preferences even if you purge all your cookies.
Mozilla's and Google's efforts might seem redundant, considering the industry itself has made moves to implement a voluntary opt-out program. However, the ad industry's plan only works if you've enabled your browser to accept third-party cookies. Odds are if you're the kind to be concerned about tracking cookies, you haven't enabled that feature in the browser -- hence the alternatives from Mozilla and Google.
Believe it or not, targeted ads have their benefits. For example, there's a 0.00000001 percent chance you might see a useful or interesting ad in your daily Web browsing. Also, Net advertising pays for fine sites like the one you are now reading, and targeted ads are where Net advertising is headed. With good reason -- automakers want to reach people who are shopping for cars, not those browsing for toilet bowl cleansers or mail-order brides. If enough people choose to not be tracked, it could theoretically cause some sites to starve to death from a dearth of advertising dollars.
But a creepy guy is still following you, and Lord only knows who else has access to the information he's gathered on you. It's all anonymous fun and games until somebody gets a subpoena and finds out that, yes, they can figure out who you are based on your IP address, your browser configuration, and your surfing history.