Yahoo: restoring your “sense” of privacy, not privacy itself

August 15th, 2008 by Grace Meng

Hot on the heels of the launch of Cuil and its no data collection policy, Yahoo announced recently that it would allow users to opt-out of targeted advertising on its own websites.

The new policy was announced in response to a letter sent by four members of the House of Representatives to 33 Internet and telecommunications companies. The first question of the letter was, “Has your company at any time tailored, or facilitated the tailoring of, Internet advertising based on consumers’ Internet search, surfing, or other use?” Ha!

In all fairness, I’m glad our elected officials are asking even simple questions. I just hope that they won’t be satisfied with overly simple responses. As many of the commenters to the Bits blog post pointed out, the issue is not so much whether the user is forced to view targeted ads, but what kind of data collection is done in order to send these users targeted ads. Chris Hoofnagle notes,

The problem with opt-out rights in the online advertising context is that it results in a worst case scenario for consumers: the opt out typically only applies to receiving targeted advertising, so the company still tracks the consumer’s behavior, but the consumer doesn’t enjoy the benefit of targeted ads.

This form of opt-out reflects a 20th century conception of privacy–privacy means not being contacted. In the 21st Century, we need to understand more subtle problems, such as the privacy risks from online advertisers mere collection and use of data.

Exactly. This is not about being put on the Internet equivalent of the “Do Not Call” registry. Does Yahoo think I would be okay with having data collected about me, as long as I never see the evidence they’re doing it?

P.S. Then again, there are certainly users like Commenter #8, whose vanity is hurt that Yahoo is sending her ads about reducing wrinkles. But deep down, even she seems to realize only her “sense” of privacy is being restored, not her privacy itself.

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