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While You Browse, Someone Else on the Web Is Taking Very Careful Aim


Out on the World Wide Web recently, one of those advertising banners caught my eye.

"You are in the publishing industry," it said. "Click to find out how we know."

Seeing as I am, in fact, in the publishing industry, this struck me as pretty amazing. How did they know it was me? So I did the only thing I could think of. I clicked.

Behind that banner was DoubleClick, an Internet advertising consultant with one of the most powerful--and disconcerting--approaches yet to online selling.

DoubleClick maintains vast databases of information about people and businesses using the Internet's World Wide Web. One such database contains a listing of Internet addresses known as domain names.

So when DoubleClick found that I was browsing from, its database reported that domain name as registered to the Hartford Courant newspaper. As a result, the company could instantly display an advertising banner designed for someone from the publishing industry.

If this were as far as it went, there would be no problem. After all, advertisers long have reached potential customers in similar ways.

But advertisers are finding that the Internet gives them an unprecedented opportunity to identify Web browsers and tailor their ads to reach them.

DoubleClick boasts about its precision. "For example," the company says, "with you can target females who work for aerospace component manufacturers in the Los Angeles area with at least $100 million in operating revenue who use PCs with Windows 95 and like sports."

It does this by gathering every crumb of data the user provides and by recording the user's footprints in cyberspace. Over time, Web servers learn your browsing habits and preferences.

The company can even arrange to automatically store some of that information in a special file on your own PC, known as a "cookie." The next time you connect, that information can be retrieved to immediately identify you.

Cookie files only contain information that you provide by some means other than merely connecting to a site, such as filling out a form with your name and e-mail address. So they don't allow Web sites to spy on you--at least not without your permission. By giving Web sites a place to store such information on your computer, cookies are another tool Web sites can use to track you and your movements online.

(If you run Netscape and you'd like to see who's been peeking at you, look for a file called "cookies.txt" on IBM compatibles or "MagicCookie" on the Macintosh.)

This kind of market research is an advertiser's dream, allowing it to aim sales messages with pinpoint accuracy. Money isn't wasted presenting advertising to people who aren't likely to be interested in the product. No sense trying to sell fish to a fisherman, eh?

As for the customers, some people like this kind of efficiency. Some people appreciate seeing ads that will probably interest them. Some people want selling tailored to their needs and wants.

But not me.

I'm not technophobic, but I am wary of companies that direct the power of computers and databases at me and my wallet. The more they talk about "targeting" their advertising, the more I feel like a deer on the first day of hunting season.

DoubleClick swears it won't turn my name or address over to advertisers or Web sites, and I believe it. But I'm not reassured. If the information is being used to sell me things, what difference does it make if DoubleClick holds onto it or passes it on? Furthermore, what about other marketing companies that make no such guarantee?

Unfortunately, the ability of advertisers and marketers to gather data about people browsing the Web has far outstripped most people's willingness to give it. And for now at least, there's not a thing you can do about it.

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