Global online advertising spending will reach $61.8 billion by the end of this year, a 2% increase from 2009, according to eMarketer, predicting further that it will grow at an 11.9% compound annual rate and that the Internet's share of total global ad spending will reach 17.2% by 2014.

Such impressive numbers raise concerns and the question whether eMarketer has also considered restrictive legislation in their calculations.  Worries over Internet privacy are being hotly debated right now, especially in the US, where lawmakers have given strong signals that they will act to protect online consumers’ privacy.  It could be that consumer data privacy legislation will be debated in both chambers of Congress early next year and this means that websites would have to get opt-in permission from consumers before sharing consumer data with third parties. Any such new rules would harm the online advertising industry enormously, but they would especially undermine the basis of the Internet as we know it in terms of free content and companies being able to monetize it.

The Direct Marketing Association would most probably support self-regulation efforts, but actually the big question here is if the initiative would have a real impact at all.  As online marketing becomes progressively sophisticated, closing one door usually means that another one opens.  So, it can be expected that in the coming years, new technology and innovation will empower marketers and advertisers to access even more details about computer users’ online activities.

Just look at the new Web code HTML 5, for instance, that promises to usher in a new era of Internet browsing within the next few years.  It will enable users to view multimedia content without downloading extra software, to check e-mail offline, or support finding a favorite restaurant or shop on a Smartphone.  The reason why it is hotly debated right now is not because of the many benefits it provides, but for the reason that HTML 5 discloses privacy issues.

Although, the additional features will most probably be extremely attractive for most of its users and resolve all their doubt of “cookies with a very long memory”, others will be more cautious as the new Web language and its additional features present more tracking opportunities.  The technology uses a process in which large amounts of data can be collected and stored on the user’s hard drive while online, which enables advertisers and others to see weeks or even months of personal data.  That could include a user’s location, time zone, photographs, text from blogs, shopping cart contents, e-mails and a history of the Web pages they have visited.

Some companies in the US have already been accused of violating users’ privacy by tracking their online activities even after they took steps to prevent that, which gives us a hint of what could come.  Considering all the free content and services that consumers now enjoy because of advertising revenue, it is imperative that any new laws are carefully tailored.
Promoting self-regulation is probably the better solution to keep sensitive consumer data private while giving web marketers access to their target consumers.  Make use of your right to self-defense and control your online privacy by adjusting the settings of your Web browser.  The most common ones, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari have different privacy settings and will most probably improve them over the course of time, so that removing data created by the new Web language will be easier and more efficient, if required.

According to experts, the privacy settings shouldn’t be too tough as it could prevent popular Websites from working properly.  It should be possible, however, to eliminate all tracking capabilities at once, if needed.  Software developers and representatives of the World Wide Web argue that as technology advances, consumers have to balance its speed and features against their ability to control their privacy.

It can be terrifying to know that information about who you are and what you're doing continually floats around in cyber space, only to be picked apart by outside parties for their own benefit.  Privacy will therefore always be an issue, especially since targeted, behavioral ads can identify our interests and even our general location.  The simple fact is that you can’t embrace free-for-all services and content and at the same time shield yourself completely from the curiosity of others – you will have to pay a price.


By Daniela La Marca