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Online advertising is becoming more and more precise in terms of delivering the right messages to the right web users, but this increase in relevance originates with a technology that raises serious privacy concerns. Internet ad serving companies need more information about individual surfers to respond with more accurately targeted adverts, so they are tracking their activity on the Internet.
A few different tools can be used to do that, but the vast majority of data comes from a tiny data file, called a cookie, that online advertising providers leave on your computer as you visit sites. Their job is to follow your behavior online and report back to the company so that, when you visit the same site again, they can serve you more precise ads on the basis of the profile they have created. Even though the process is unlikely to lead to identifying you by name, its level of sophistication is so high that user and governments are worried about its effect on privacy on the Internet.
Strictly speaking, these are the so-called third-party cookies that are responsible for providing information necessary to power behavioral advertising and they attract the most criticism from privacy activists. They are placed on a user’s computer not by the site they visit, but by an outside service (which makes them third-party) and are typically used for tracking, collecting and reporting back your browsing behavior. First-party cookies, on the other hand, are set by the site you visit and their main roles are technical – session authentication, identification and management. They are necessary for a smooth browsing experience and cause no privacy concerns.
Browsers make it possible to disable cookies. While rejecting first-party cookies can practically ruin your browsing experience, saying no to third-party cookies does not carry any such consequences. What it means, though, is that your computer will not accept any sites other that the ones you visit to place and store a tracking cookie. As a result, advertisers on the websites you will visit in the future will know much less about your demographic profile and preferences.
The default setting in most browsers at the moment is allowing third-party cookies. There are no reliable statistics about the percentage of web users who decide to block this operation, but among individual surfers it is bound to be quite low. One reason might be lack of awareness and knowledge about how to do it, but the other thing is that, amid all this talk about online privacy, most people appreciate advantages of behavioral advertising. In actual fact, the new generation of Internet users is changing its attitude to privacy as such, showing greater willingness to accept tradeoffs in this area. What happens on Facebook in terms of anonymity and privacy is a perfect case in point.
Legislators and governments are less approving, coming up with regulations that aim to introduce more stringent rules for tracking and collecting data about surfers for online advertising. The industry of developers working around the area is emerging too, with companies creating applications that monitor your web privacy, like Abine, or circumvent the limits of third-party cookies in data collection, like Opentracker.