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The Internet knows more about you than you think

As Facebook extends its reach, personalized ads are becoming a cause for concern

By Sarah Klein

Collecting information about a consumer's behavior and then using that information to sell them things isn't a new concept. If you provide your age or household income to any online database, you can expect to see more focused advertising across many of your favorite web sites.

However, as we continue to provide sites like Google and Facebook with more and more personal information, we are seeing a different trend emerge – one that's starting to alarm privacy advocates and attract the attention of legislators.

The New York Times first reported on the phenomenon of personalized ads in 2008, after ComScore released data showing that five online giants, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, AOL, and MySpace, were registering over 300 billion "data transmission events" – essentially the recording of consumer data – every month.

These data transmissions ranged from something as benign as a zip code to an individual's online prescription order. This didn't make the average web-surfer very happy: A 2007 survey of California adults found that 85% of people believed that sites should not be able to monitor activity in this way.

Today, opinion has clearly shifted. A recent survey conducted by ChoiceStream found that almost 80% of consumers said they were interested in having ads cater to their interests. And just last month, Women's Channel, a company that researches women's online behavior, reported that 88% of women actually wanted ads tailored to their individual tastes.

But not all consumer groups are so receptive or discerning. Teens in particular are often shown inappropriate and potentially harmful ads that are causing concern for parents and Internet safety groups.

Jess Walker, a 22-year-old from Florida, told the New York Times she was shown an ad for Plan B, the morning-after pill, on her Facebook page. And numerous parents and teens have reported seeing ads for diet pills, alcohol, and other inappropriate messages.

Because Facebook – a teen favorite – is at the forefront of personalized ads, parents have reason to worry. As it now stands, the Facebook ad system allows individuals and companies to specifically target very small niches. They can place ads for concert tickets in the sightlines of people who have listed the band as a favorite on their profile page, or they can advertise specifically to people of a certain age or students or alumni of a certain university.

Facebook has also expanded the potential for more highly-targeted ads with its instant personalization program. This allows partner sites – currently Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft's new docs site – to access information from a user's Facebook profile when that user visits those sites.

Facebook says it is continuously working to limit the number of ads that use members' information deceptively or inappropriately. But to opt-out of sharing information, members must go through a discouragingly complex and elaborate process that requires clicking more than 50 buttons from over 170 options.

Developers admit that personalized ad technology is new and it may take some time to figure out how to use it effectively and safely. In the meantime, kids – and parents – need to keep a watchful eye.

Have you or your children had an unsettling experience with personalized advertising? Share your experiences with The Online Mom!

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