The boundaries were crossed a while ago

Remember banner ads? You know, those cute little 486x60 GIF files that helpfully displayed some advertisement that you may have been marginally interested in seeing? They’re an endangered species now. When’s the last time you encountered an actual GIF or JPEG banner in the wild, thoughtfully placed somewhere on the edge of a site's content?

Things have most certainly changed since then; the ads we see today are so much more sophisticated (annoying) than the quaint times of old.

A few years ago, the online advertising landscape started to take a different, far more disruptive turn, and for a lot of people the change came suddenly. I remember my first experience with this wild, wooly world of ads with the same clarity that one might remember their their first kiss, or a first encounter with that revolting internet image-meme-whose name-shall-not-be-mentioned: reading a review on Gamespy, a floating ad appears – it's a picture of some college kid, hanging onto a piece of telephone cord for dear life, rappelling down my browser. 

After descending halfway, he stops and instead begins dangling around the center of my screen, holding on for dear life. More importantly, he was blocking the text I was reading.

“What the?” I remember thinking, “Who is this kid, how’d be rappel down in front of my text, and why is he here in the first place?”

I knew, right then, that it was the beginning of the end. You see, somewhere around that time, someone figured out how to make a Flash file jump out of its cleverly-defined container and run amok around your browser. So what happened then? Advertisers jumped on it, and immediately began cranking out banner ads that broke through all manner of bounding boxes and other arbitrary constraints. In a relatively short amount of time, movie trailers gained the ability to truly jump out at you – movie advertisements seem to be the most notorious for this, by my count – and browsing became so perilous that mousing in the wrong spot resulted in the forfeiture of half your screen’s real estate.

Meanwhile, behavioral tracking systems become more and more sophisticated. We’re way past the days of simple context-sensitive text-based advertising in Gmail and AdSense; “ehavioral” tracking now builds complex profiles, gathering data from numerous sources. Sometimes it's your surfing history, or personal preferences, or shopping habits, or even the contents of your accounts with web-based email or other services.

As a result, ads have achieved a creppy level of intelligent, and become sophisticated enough to hide that smarts with subtlety.

Case in point: social-networking giant Facebook “is expected” to announce a change in their advertising policy that would build ad profiles based on the contents of your account, which it would then insert ads into. Friends, interests, favorite bands; all of these things will be are said to be used in this new scheme. Another example: 24/7 Real Media, a world-wide advertising network, has experimented with cross-linking ad databases with geographic addresses.

How far are we away from some company successfully selling a universal profiling database composited from the databases of lesser networks? Are we already there? How many of us really want that? And what of those who don’t? 

Now, mind you, I’m not against advertising, and unfortunately we all know that yesteryear's advertising model – the glory days of the humble animated GIF – is simply unsustainable. It’s fine that marketers need to keep up with the times and the revenue models of today’s internet, but do they always have to be in my face about it? Whatever happened to the idea of personal privacy, of reverence and a sense of you-just-don’t-go-there? Whatever happened to respect for the people you attempt to “spread your message” to?

Many of us feel that advertising has simply gone too far. Luckily, at least a few of the people at the FTC are in this group, and recently they held an FTC Town Hall meeting titled, “Ehavioral Advertising: Tracking, Targeting, & Technology.”

While reports on the summit seem to be in short supply, a little bit of Google-fu reveals that a lot of the big players in search, advertising, and technology showed up: Google, Microsoft, and eBay, among other “various policy groups and big companies.” The event seems to have gone down with a minimum of fuss, and the FTC’s stance could be best summed up by Comissioner Jon Leibowitz, who told attendees that “the current 'don't ask, don't tell' mentality in online profile tracking needs to end.”

Among many of the interesting finds, eBay demonstrated its new AdChoice program for users, which uses “more progressive consumer control techniques,” and provides finer-grained information and control of how a given user is shown a particular ad – users can even choose to opt out of the program’s behavioral tracking in favor of more generic advertising.

In another speech, Lorrie Cramer of Carnegie Mellon University referred to a recent study her group conducted: consumers, if given a choice, are willing to pay more for increased privacy in their purchases.

Many consumer advocates pushed for standardization and disclosures in online advertising that’s used in conjunction with behavioral tracking, and many of these same people want to force advertisers to provide an option for users to opt out of these systems. A do-not-track list was also proposed, constructed in a similar vein as the do-not-call list distributed to telemarketers around the U.S.

On the other side of the debate, advertisers and marketers worried that federal regulations could have serious repercussions on the advertising industry’s current success, and possibly “take the boom out of online ads.” These same groups also noted there just isn’t enough room to fit in all these various disclosures in the limited ad-space they have, and that they may actually end up ruining the experience over the long run.

While the FTC hasn’t made any binding moves on the matter, it seems that it is certainly preparing to do so. Advertisers consider yourself on notice: stop collecting users’ data, and give them easy-to-understand controls on what you’re doing with it, or else.

Unfortunately, my complaints of disruptive, annoying ads still seem to be falling on deaf ears – but that’s OK, as we surfers have tools to remedy them. What we don't have, however, are tools to mute the ads with sound.

AdSoundBlock, anyone?

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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