The internet should treat us like Norm on "Cheers." Whenever he entered the familiar confines of his neighborhood bar, the welcome cry would go out: "Norm!" Before he could reach his regular seat, his favorite beer had been poured and was waiting for him.
But some seem bent on turning our experience on the internet into Bill Murray's hapless weatherman in "Ground Hog Day." Every day, he had to get up and experience the same events over and over again. Only he learned from his experience. No one else remembered his interests or acted to address them. Only by his own learning did he finally avoid the puddle or sidestep the thrown snowball or figure out how to win the girl.
Oddly, we've arrived at this point not because of some weakness of the internet but because of its greatest strength. The true power of the internet isn't the vast amount of information available, the lightning-quick speed of searching billions of pages or the amazing ability to discover connections among people. The greatest strength of the internet is the ability to track nearly every action -- and that has privacy advocates raising Big Brother-esque fears, which are finding receptive audiences in Congress and among regulators.
The issue at stake is how internet-based businesses track the activities of users and what they do with the information they collect. Like the browser that made the vastness of the web seem as easy to navigate as the click of a mouse, it's tempting for some to make navigating this issue seem simple. The reality is far from simple.
The focus of most attention has been on so-called behavioral targeting of advertising. Behavioral targeting allows advertisers to target messages about, say, insurance products to the web pages being accessed by a computer that has shown an interest in insurance -- perhaps by doing searches on related terms or by previously visiting insurance information sites. But also in the spotlight is the vast amount of information collected by the largest search engines and portals through which so much internet traffic flows. Tracking is vital to myriad applications on the web, some of which are available today and some of which will launch in the future, continuing to make the web more valuable to both consumers and businesses.
Users of the internet increasingly expect that their experience will be personalized, that information will be relevant to their interests. Sites that remember you and recommend useful products or suggest songs or movies you'd like are more popular than those that don't. Personalized news sites are visited more frequently and readers spend more time with them than they do at those that offer a one-size-fits-all view. And, yes, advertising messages that are relevant to the interests of a user get more attention and have more impact than untargeted mass messages.
The economic viability of digital media -- especially journalism -- depends to a great degree on making it easier for you to find and discover content of interest to you and giving advertisers ways to reach the readers most likely to be interested in their products. At DailyMe, we're not exactly an uninterested bystander. We are working hard to equip publishers with powerful applications to do exactly that, so we have a big stake in ensuring the industry gets this right and regulation isn't needed.
We will act to ensure that appropriate safeguards are put in place. Greater transparency about what is collected and how it is used and greater control will both be offered to users. Behavioral information -- what is learned about a browser as the computer visits different sites -- need not be connected to personally identifiable information unless the user agrees.
Congress and regulators should give the industry a chance to act. If the town fathers instead look for an easy answer by preventing all behavioral targeting or making tracking opt-in only, it would be as if they pulled out a furry rodent to see if a shadow appears -- and we could well find the internet heading back into a long, cold winter.
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Neil Budde is president and chief product officer of DailyMe, a digital media and technology company specializing in products for the discovery and distribution of news content. He was the founding editor and publisher of The Wall Street Journal Online and as VP-editor-in-chief of Yahoo News, Finance and Sports.