Guest column: Who are you? (Take a cookie)

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: At last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. "Who are YOU?" said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a ***[MISSING BIT] ***-- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis CarrollBy now, you must all know about online profiling, the practice of aggregating information about people's online behavior to generate a profile of each consumer's preferences. Some of this profiling is done through the amazingly misunderstood Web technology called cookies, used to identify and track Web browsers.

The most important part of the profiling process is taking information gathered as users interact with a Web site (such as where users go and what they reveal about themselves when asked) and possibly merging it with information from other sources (credit profiles and so on) to produce a profile.

While some profiling is solely for the purpose of being able to target Web site advertising at the user, that's not the entire story. I can now reveal that the full purpose of online profiling is to enable total world domination by a secret cabal of "black hat" government agencies under the direction of the world banking system. OK, I'm kidding.

The truth is that profiling happens to you every day offline as well as online. With nary a second thought, you go into Von's and let them swipe your Von's Club card. You have just left a data trail wide enough for them to drive a truck down sideways, direct to your front door loaded with special offers for your consideration.

Think about it: You swipe your gas cards, affinity cards and credit cards a dozen times each week. Just because you don't bother to find out what companies do with the data doesn't mean that they aren't slicing and dicing it a dozen ways to your next purchase. But do you worry? Unless you are very paranoid, the answer will most likely be not much, if at all. And should we worry? Probably. Although to worry presumes a lot about how effective companies are at using the derived data.

Once again, the big bad bogeyman of the Internet has become the target for the politicians. On November 8 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the US Department of Commerce and the Federal Trade Commission held a public workshop on online profiling (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/privacy/index.html).

At the workshop, all the big online advertising agencies -- including AdKnowledge, AdForce, DoubleClick, Engage, Flycast, MatchLogic, 24/7 Media and Real Media -- said they would do something about the issue by creating a site (http://www.networkadvertising.org) to educate consumers about the industry's attempts to self-regulate. 'Scuse me if I'm not over excited about this.

Of course, these responsible organizations -- which are loath to have their wings clipped by the government -- are the tip of the virtual iceberg. There are tens of thousands of other sites that tag your browser with a cookie and then attempt to track you and your behavior in a lot more intrusive ways than the big boys.

I don't have any problem with the use of online profiling being tightened, but we're missing the bigger picture here. The real issue is profiling in general, in the real and virtual worlds.

Once again, the government regulators and politicians are trying to turn the Internet into a controlled, measurable thing so they can pat themselves on the back and say "Well done, us." But will we all wake up and demand that such control be applied to the real world? Write to the NTIA. Demand that they focus on the bigger picture. Let them know who you are.

(Identify yourself to nwcolumn@ gibbs.com.)

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