Are you being cyber-stalked by ads? Is some machine fol­low­ing you around with evil urges? Or do you actu­ally enjoy that rare occa­sion when you notice that mov­ing ban­ner ad is actu­ally about some­thing you’re inter­ested in?

The debate over behav­ioral tar­get­ing (BT) was stoked this week by the FTC Chair­man who threat­ened to reg­u­late an advertiser’s abil­ity to show rel­e­vant ads to con­sumers. In a recent AdAge piece, the “Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion Chair­man Jon Lei­bowitz, told mem­bers of the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee in a hear­ing Tues­day that ‘we are grav­i­tat­ing to an opt-out of behav­ioral tar­get­ing [for mul­ti­ple sites] through a sin­gle entity.’”

Now, an opt-out option for behav­ioral tar­get­ing already exists from the main pub­lish­ers and users of BT — Google, Yahoo and Microsoft — as well as 3rd party data providers like BlueKai. Still, our reg­u­la­tors feel some­thing more for­mal would alle­vi­ate con­sumers’ fears that they are being cyber-stalked by ad servers.

But why is this nec­es­sary at all? What pos­si­ble ill-will could an ad server per­pe­trate on some unsus­pect­ing inter­net browser? It’s cer­tainly true that an inap­pro­pri­ate adult ad could be shown to a minor or some other offen­sive piece of con­tent could be shown to an inno­cent Web surfer. But most advo­cates of reg­u­la­tion just think BT is “creepy,” as Sen­a­tor Claire McCaskill said in the AdAge piece.

How­ever, in gen­eral there is no incen­tive for an adver­tiser to waste impres­sions on a con­sumer that has no inter­est in their prod­uct. I’ll say it again, because therein lies the advertiser’s and publisher’s case for light reg­u­la­tion on behav­ioral tar­get­ing: there is no incen­tive for an adver­tiser to waste impres­sions on a con­sumer that has no inter­est in their prod­uct.
At its best, BT only shows the most rel­e­vant ad to the fewest num­ber of inter­ested con­sumers. Con­sumers only see ads they’re inter­ested in, pub­lish­ers get a higher pre­mium from adver­tis­ers for their con­tent, and adver­tis­ers pay more to reach those inter­ested consumers.

What’s ironic about this debate is con­sumers have been will­fully endur­ing irrel­e­vant ads on tele­vi­sion for decades. How many mil­lions of women have seen “Hair Club for Men” ads? How many mil­lions of men have seen make-up or fem­i­nine hygiene ads? And more impor­tantly, how many bil­lions of dol­lars have adver­tis­ers wasted show­ing these ads to totally dis­in­ter­ested con­sumers? The inter­net can elim­i­nate that inef­fi­ciency and can remain not only the free and thriv­ing con­tent and com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nel it’s been up until now but it can actu­ally improve to a point where con­sumers see noth­ing, not even ads, they don’t want to see.

The debate is still rag­ing with this follow-up piece on AdAge. Whether you think BT is good or bad for the over­all future of the inter­net, I encour­age you to join in the debate and make your voice heard.

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