Behavioral Targeting and Political Campaigns: The tip of the Online Targeting Iceberg

We hope readers will review the excellent articles on behavioral targeting and the election that appear in Businessweek [“The Candidates are Monitoring Your Mouse”] and The Washington Post [“Candidates’Websites Get to Know the Voters”].

Most observers understand that there are serious privacy issues involved when anyone–be it a marketer and (especially) a politician engages in data collection and micro-targeting online without prior consumer/citizen consent. While a few might express sentiments of cynicism–claiming that because some lawmakers may use these techniques it’s unlikely they will support safeguards–the opposite is true. Responsible lawmakers will recognize that in a digital democracy, protecting everyone’s privacy is crucial. Just as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which I helped spearhead, received strong bi-partisan support (Sen. John McCain was a co-sponsor, along with Rep. Ed Markey, for example), so will new rules which protect everyone online. Responsible parties will support meaningful safeguards–or be on the wrong side of much consumer ire.

PS: NPR has a fascinating and a very revealing video interview on this topic with Michael Bassik, Vice President for Interactive Marketing at MSHC Partners. MSHC represents the Democratic National Committee,, and the Center for American Progress, among many others. Here’s an especially informative excerpt [my transcription]:

“…in the past we were able to determine whether an advertisement was delivered, and we call those advertising impressions; we were able to determine how many people clicked on an ad, which is called the click-thru rate, and we could figure out from there the cost-per-click. That was about the extent of the reporting we had in the past. But now in 2008 we have tremendous deep reporting capabilities. So I can tell you, for example, who saw a John McCain banner ad on which site. And which placement on that site and which size the ad was. I can tell you how long that ad was on the page for before someone click on it. I can tell you if they clicked on it whether they donated, whether they signed –up. But also tell you whether someone saw that ad, but did not click on it. But two weeks later went to John McCain’s website on their own and made a donation. We can tie that donation back to the fact that they saw an ad on three weeks prior in the political section in the 728 by 90 leaderboard size. I used McCain as an example, but of course all the candidates, including our Democratic and progressive candidates, are doing that.”

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

1 thought on “Behavioral Targeting and Political Campaigns: The tip of the Online Targeting Iceberg”

  1. The fact that politicians can invade voter’s privacy at will and beyond viable regulation has long been a truism of American politics. Direct mail, TV ads, robo calls, and now online “sentiment detection” all trample on the privacy of voters.

    Politicians have hidden behind the First Amendment for years. It is now time for a Voter’s Privacy Bill of Rights.

    Voters must be given the right to opt-out of politicians invading their privacy without having to be be bombarded by political robo calls day in and day out.

    Senator Feinstein and Representative Lofgren have started the legislative discussion with the Robocall Privacy Act, introduced this session, but stalled in committee.

    I started a non-profit, non-partisan organization last year to combat intrusive robo-calls by using a voluntary, private sector solution: the Political Do Not Contact Registry located at

    So far approximately six politicians have taken a ‘do not robo call” pledge. It is a start.

    Shaun Dakin
    A non-profit fighting for the privacy of the American voter

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