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Sunday, May 02, 2004

Other Free Email Services Already Do "Creepy" GMail Things, Finds Tillinghast

MarketingVOX reports that Hotmail and Yahoo Mail may already be targeting banner ads to email content. Google's popularity may make it the "target du jour," but ad targeting technology is here to stay. In the final analysis, free web-based email is a voluntary program, like Air Miles. You give something to get something. Many consumers understand that, although it's probably the case that disclosure should be better. And P.S. - no one is reading your email. Unless, of course, the government is.

Since Yahoo Mail and Hotmail users quickly forgot about security and privacy flaps that arose over the past few years, one assumes that this brouhaha will fade into the background and GMail, too, will become just a part of the furniture.

When it comes to privacy, though, opinion seems to be increasingly sharply divided. It's possible, I think, that the online privacy debate may become more heated as users discover the extent of data collection and spying that has become commonplace at firms that are considered (and consider themselves) respectable. The past few days have been a minor personal hell for me after finding myself unable to remove a certain piece of nasty "malware" and a few of its "adware friends" picked up as a result of a drive-by download (while having my personal firewall temporarily disabled). Manual registry editing didn't do the full trick, but using a handy piece of software (won't name the vendor as I don't want to seem like I'm telling this story just to endorse software), I was able to get a full list of all the questionable files on my computer and in my Windows registry. (McAfee Virus Scan had not been able to find all of these items, and wasn't successful in cleaning or quarantining some of them.) Finally, after three days of having text ad links embedded on top of articles I was reading, new browser windows opening and my keyboard locking up, and even big banners for spyware remover replacing the "real" banners on Yahoo, I got everything straightened out.

To my surprise, the anti-adware scan showed that there were far more of the nefarious files lurking on my system than just the ones I'd recently inherited. In addition to some really bad-sounding ones I didn't know I had, spyware files from Claria and data miners from Alexa were far more extensive than I would have expected, and in the Alexa case, were on my computer even though I'd long ago uninstalled the Alexa toolbar. If this took me aback -- a user who can tell the difference between many of these vendors and recognize which ones are relatively non-evil -- it's not a stretch to imagine a great many Internet users becoming more savvy about security while simultaneously having zero concern for the "rights of advertisers," and thus developing a "no-tolerance" mentality when it comes to this stuff. I suppose that will mean that advertisers will have to get used to spotty data, and online companies that rely completely on ad revenue will always be smart to diversify into fee-based revenues or transaction-based models as well.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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