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Gator ad policy raises Internet privacy issues

Thursday, September 13, 2001

In May I alerted readers to Gator, an application that tracks users around the Web.

Gator is bundled with other applications that the users really want, including some aimed at children.


I'm confident that most users don't read Gator's privacy policy, which is extremely broad, and not friendly to people who want reasonable levels of privacy.

Now, months later, a battle is brewing based on advertising tactics used by the company owning Gator. Among Gator's tactics: overriding banner ads with their own context-sensitive ads.

"So what?" you say. "A number of Web sites show me context sensitive advertising."

There is a big difference between tracking you within a Web site to serve you better within that site and tracking you whenever you're logged in and rambling around the Internet. The former is a service to you, the user; the latter could be an invasion of your privacy.

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Many users are concerned about ad networks such as DoubleClick because ad networks also track you through various Web sites.

DoubleClick, like most ad networks, uses cookies to track you. Each time you load a page that has a DoubleClick banner, it drops a small file on your system, and reads that file on each subsequent page that has a DoubleClick banner. It then builds a profile about you so it can deliver ads based on your interests.

There are limits here. You can turn cookies off -- or in Internet Explorer 6 and Netscape 6 even control which Web sites can serve you cookies.

With Gator, though, you must accept Gator's broadly defined privacy policy in order to use the applications that come with Gator. Otherwise, you can't install the software that you really want -- the one that carries Gator in its bundle.

The industry is concerned because Gator replaces ads from a given Web page with ads of its own clients. So you could be reading a publication that makes its money from ad revenue, and you won't even see the ad footing the bill for your experience.

This is like gluing ads over the full-page ads in this newspaper. Worse, Gator can replace an ad with the ad of a direct competitor.

If use of Gator becomes widespread, even more Web publications will shut down for lack of funding. Their sponsors will pay less money to run ads in those publications, therefore making it unprofitable to publish on the Net.

In addition, many companies will modify their e-commerce Web sites to protect themselves from competitive Gator ads (perhaps making them more difficult to use) or even close them.

Gator's chief executive officer contends that individuals have the ability to read the privacy policy before being monitored by Gator.

I know that my 10-year-old son, as bright as he is, would not have had any clue as to what the policy meant, when accepting it. His friends have installed Gator-related software without their parents knowing -- thereby exposing their entire families to Gator monitoring and ad substitution.

Many Internet users probably see it as a battle of the bad guys -- trying to determine which advertisers have the greatest right to reach you via the Web.

But the battle is actually between the people funding the companies that are providing you with Web resources and Gator, which is attracting your attention and building a profile on you at the same time.

Gator's CEO contends that consumers should have the right to decide between his advertising and the original advertising that his ads replace. The industry disagrees.

David Radin is host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Internet Insider." You can comment or ask him a computer or Internet question by following the instructions at www.post-gazette.com/interact, where you can find an archive of his previous Q&A columns.

Click here for an archive of previous Interact articles

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