The Internet is getting too smart

The Thinker by Rodin

I don’t know if you have had the same experience I have had trolling around the Internet. No matter where I go, the same targeted ads follow me.

From the perspective of web advertisers and sellers this is good news. Why serve me useless ads for places like Popeye’s Chicken when instead they can target me with ads for open source support from OpenLogic? OpenLogic is one of a number of companies that provide support for open source software. It’s a pretty obscure field, which means if I am to get targeted for their ads someone knows a whole lot about me.

For you see, I do happen to know a bit about OpenLogic. One day at work I was so disgruntled with the price increases that Oracle wanted to support its MySQL product that I went hunting for cheaper alternatives. MySQL is a database used everywhere, but mostly on the Internet. It powers most major Internet websites including the Google search engine and photo sites like Flickr. MySQL has gone through a series of acquisitions over the years, first by Sun, and now Oracle, which acquired Sun. It’s pretty much a given that when Oracle acquires a product, it raises prices by about a third, and that’s what I was seeing for Oracle support for MySQL. Larry Ellison needs more yachts. Yes, there is “competition” for MySQL support but most of these vendors are simply reselling support that really comes from Oracle, which means their prices closely match Oracle’s prices. OpenLogic was one of the exceptions, provided we installed a community edition of MySQL. It looked like if we went with OpenLogic we could trim our support costs for MySQL by half. Good deal.

In the last month or so I have seen OpenLogic web ads pretty much everywhere I go on the Internet. It’s not a big enough company to target users indiscriminately. Most people have no idea what open source software is, and if they do they probably aren’t someone who might have authority to buy or recommend it, as I have. But clearly somewhere on the web there is some firm or firms keeping track of this stuff. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I am at work or at home on my personal computer. I can be on the road as well. OpenLogic ads will follow me everywhere. Frankly, it creeps me out. I don’t want the Internet to know this much about me. I want to turn this off. I want anonymity again when I surf the web.

What worries me more is that if the commercial world can piece this together about me, perhaps Big Brother is doing the same as well. Maybe we are all being monitored by the NSA or some other government agencies, maybe when by law we should not be. Who can say? The Patriot Act has been extended way beyond its planned uses, and both the Bush and Obama Administrations think it gives them carte blanche to snoop around on the Internet and put together electronic dossiers on potential terrorists, which theoretically could be any of us. I have a feeling that my NSA file is already much larger than any FBI file accumulated against famous people like Martin Luther King.

I can live in denial about potential government snooping of my private life, but corporations clearly know way too much about me, including stuff I have not divulged online. I am seeing ads for Three Musketeers candy bar (“Now with more chocolate”) most places I go as well. Someone apparently knows I buy a bar once a week or so. When I do, it’s usually in the snack bar at work. I pay cash. Yet the Internet seems to know somehow because I see the Three Musketeers ads served nearly as much as the OpenLogic ads.

It used to be that if you felt paranoid about your online privacy you would go into your web browser and remove all your persistent cookies. Web sites would lose associations with you. Apparently, that is no longer the case. Web cookies are so old fashioned. As best I can figure your internet protocol (IP) address is being tracked and matched in real time against targeted ads, and probably associated with your name and buying habits. This means that removing cookies offers little privacy protection. I am really disturbed though when I find that some company is relating my work IP address with my personal IP address. This must be happening; otherwise I would not see so many OpenLogic ads when I surf from home.

The Internet also knows I am an old fart. Well, not that old. I live in denial at age 54. But it knows that old farts like me want QWERTY keyboards. So I am being targeted with ads for cricKet smartphones because, presumably, it also knows that I don’t yet own a smartphone. And hey, they have QWERTY keyboards for us old farts! I never mentioned online anywhere that I prefer QWERTY keyboards (well, until now) but someone has figured it out, or has figured out I was likely to want one, being an old fart. I embarrass myself trying to type text messages on my cell phone. It can take minutes. Gimme a keyboard, dammit!

Meanwhile, United Airlines is also targeting me, tempting me with flight deals that don’t seem much of a bargain. This is presumably because I am in their frequent flier club, if flying United three to six times a year for business makes you a frequent flier. Jetblue is tempting me as well, perhaps because I gave them a positive review, but also because I bought some tickets from them online recently. Doubtless I am hardly unique and I bet you too are puzzled by these highly targeted ads as well.

The thing that bugs me is that they don’t pay a toll. Oh, I am sure sites like Google charge a toll, but I don’t get any money from it. I’d like to put up a tollbooth on my Internet experience which basically would say “If you want to serve me a targeted web ad, pay up buddy!” I know there are browser Add Ons like Ad-Block that do a decent job of killing most ads, but I have found them annoying because they aren’t one hundred percent effective. I’d like advertisers to bid for my attention. I figure if I charged only a penny per targeted ad per day, I could make between two and five dollars a day. Can someone write software like this? I’d buy it. Maybe I will write it when I retire. I figure at my age and income level, I should be a valuable advertising target for someone. Just why give away the store?

There are anonymizer services out there that would make my web browsing experience less personalized, but you have to pay for anonymity. Running everything through a proxy would also make content appear more slowly. I realize Internet privacy is something of an illusion, but it feels like it has gone way too far in the wrong direction. I want to reclaim some private space online, but it seems impossible at this point.

To start, it would be nice to get rid of all the ads for OpenLogic, Three Musketeers, various airlines and other sites, but I have a feeling there are other targeted ads in the queue waiting for me if I succeeded. It seems that as part of the price to pay for being an online denizen I will have to get used to being watched. I wish it were otherwise.

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