Monitoring of Web Users Stirs Privacy Concerns

February 7, 2000 12:00 am

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NEW YORK, NY — Privacy advocates have long been concerned about DoubleClick, a company that tracks consumers’ movements around the Web. According to The New York Times, however, that concern has escalated in recent weeks after the company announced that it has begun adding information about consumers’ offline behavior to its huge database.

One privacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said last week that it is preparing a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission about DoubleClick’s tracking practices, the Times reported. Another group, the Center for Democracy and Technology, announced a campaign to persuade consumers to opt out of DoubleClick’s tracking system.

Even industry analysts have criticized DoubleClick, saying consumers should be able to block its system more easily.

DoubleClick has grown rapidly over the last few years. It provides two services to Internet advertisers. First, it licenses to 11,000 clients software that places advertisements on Web pages.

Second, and far more controversial, is a service it provides to the 1,500 companies that receive their advertisements directly from DoubleClick: monitoring the behavior of individuals as they move around the Internet sites with which DoubleClick is affiliated.

The information it acquires is placed in a huge database, which enables DoubleClick to personalize the ads people see when they visit its clients’ Web sites. The ads are customized to appeal to each individual’s interests and buying habits.

The system gives advertisers the key ability to focus on consumers’ needs and wants. But privacy advocates are disturbed by the fact that few consumers realize they are being monitored, and that those who do find it difficult to stop DoubleClick from tracking their activities.

Privacy concerns are mounting because DoubleClick’s new Abacus Alliance service, which Doubleclick created after it purchased the database company Abacus Direct last year, has begun combining its online data with information gleaned from consumers’ offline purchases from major retailers, catalogue companies, and publishers.

Analysts said the tracking of Internet consumers is gaining momentum as advertisers demand greater results for their costs. And they said it is natural to try to improve the tracking systems by integrating data from online and offline sources.

DoubleClick pledges that it will not collect data on consumers’ medical, financial, or sexual behavior, or on children’s surfing habits. Such statements carry little weight, however, in part since the company is under no legal obligation to abide by such restrictions.

The ACLU is a strong advocate of laws that would prevent abuse of information about consumers. “DoubleClick is the privacy nightmare scenario that we have long been warning about,” said Barry Steinhardt, the ACLU’s Associate Director. “It is the marriage of information collected online with huge databases collected offline. This gives companies the ability to create complete dossiers on unsuspecting conusmers.”

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