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June 11, 2012 at 11:26 AM

Report: Microsoft and Yahoo give political campaigns ability to tailor ads to you

Microsoft and Yahoo are selling to political campaigns the ability to target online ads to users of their free email and other services, reports investigative journalism organization Pro Publica.

The two companies provide information on users’ names, Zip codes and other registration information that users provide when they sign up for those Web services, according to Pro Publica, which notes that the companies don’t notify users that their information is being used for political targeting.

Political campaigns can then match voter records to people’s online identities and send them targeted ads.

Microsoft and Yahoo told Pro Publica that “they safeguard the privacy of their users and do not share their users’ personal information directly with the campaigns,” according to the article. “Both companies also said they do not see the campaigns’ political data, because the match of voter names and registration data is done by a third company. They say the matching is done to target groups of similar voters, and not named individuals.”

It’s certainly not new for political campaigns to tailor ads to specific voters. They have been doing so for years with mailings.

And it’s business as usual for companies to sell — and place — online ads specifically tailored to the user, using information gathered as the user, say, purchases products online or surfs the Web.

But it’s combining the two that seems to raise the question of where privacy boundaries in online advertising should lie.

Pro Publica says Google and Facebook both said they don’t offer “this kind of political matching service,” with Google’s privacy policy classifying political beliefs as “sensitive personal information,” according to the article.

Microsoft and Yahoo told Pro Publica that users can opt out of targeted ads.

Pro Publica has more details here, along with links to two sites that let you opt out of tracked advertising for a number of companies.

[Update 6 p.m.: Microsoft issued a statement, saying: “We offer targeted advertising services to customers, including political campaigns from both parties. We want to be clear, however, that we use only data that does not personally identify individual consumers to select which online ads are delivered to the user.”]

That Microsoft is selling the ability to target such political ads is ironic, given that the company has created a furor in recent days over its decision to ship Internet Explorer 10 with the “Do Not Track” option turned on by default.

“We believe that consumers should have more control over how information about their online behavior is tracked, shared and used,” Microsoft’s Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch said in a blog post announcing the IE10 decision.

That decision angered the ad industry.

And even a standards group setting specifications for what “Do Not Track” means had issued a draft of the specs — though it’s not final — saying the decision to turn on “Do Not Track” should be left to the end user, not the company issuing the browser.

Adding to the irony: Microsoft’s own ad network doesn’t comply with “Do Not Track,” though the company says discussions are under way to possibly change that stance.

On the other hand, Microsoft could argue that, in the end, its decision to ship IE10 with “Do Not Track” on still gives consumers more power, regardless of whether its own ad network complies with “Do Not Track” or not. In essence, if the user decides to turn “Do Not Track” off, the company could argue, that user is then knowingly making himself fair game for targeted ads.

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