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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