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How Microsoft and Yahoo are selling politicians access to you

The personal information you gave Microsoft or Yahoo may be used to target you with online ads


Microsoft and Yahoo are selling political campaigns the ability to target voters online with tailored ads using names, Zip codes and other registration information that users provide when they sign up for free email and other services.

The Web giants provide users no notification that their information is being used for political targeting.

In one sense, campaigns are doing a more sophisticated version of what they've always done through the post office — sending political fliers to selected households. But the Internet allows for more subtle targeting. It relies not on email but on advertisements that surfers may not realize have been customized for them.

Campaigns use voters records to assemble lists of people they're trying to reach — for instance, "registered Republicans that have made a donation," Yahoo's director of sales Andy Cotten told ProPublica. Microsoft and Yahoo help campaigns find these people online and then send them tailored ads.

These messages don't just pop up in Yahoo Mail or Hotmail. Because Microsoft and Yahoo operate huge networks that provide advertising on some of the most popular web destinations, targeted ads can appear when a voter visits a swath of different sites.

Microsoft and Yahoo said they safeguard the privacy of their users and do not share their users' personal information directly with the campaigns. 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.

According to Microsoft, President Obama's re-election campaign has recently done this kind of targeting, and both national political parties have done so previously.

The marketing site ClickZ, the Wall Street Journal, Slate and others have previously noted the ability of campaigns to target online ads to specific groups of voters. But what has not been detailed is which companies are now making the targeting possible by providing users' personal information — and which have decided it's off-limits.

Google and Facebook told ProPublica they do not offer this kind of political matching service.

Google's privacy policy classifies political beliefs as "sensitive personal information," which should not be used for online ad targeting. Facebook does allow political campaigns to target political advertisements, but only on the basis of political beliefs reported by the users themselves, rather than information culled from their voting records.

Jules Polonetsky, a former chief privacy Officer at AOL, and now the director of the Future of Privacy Forum, said political targeting has grown more aggressive in recent years.

Polonetsky recalls conversations within the online ad industry about "not wanting to do things like targeting users based on donor history" because "all of that was considered far too sensitive and likely to alarm users and set off privacy concerns."
"Today, those barriers have been leapt over with abandon," he said.

Industry experts argue targeted advertising can help campaigns save money by advertising more efficiently, a factor that could level the playing field for smaller campaigns.

Privacy advocates note that there's no way to track what messages campaigns are showing to different targeted groups — or whether politicians may be pandering to different voters.

"Whenever a campaign or other big organization knows much more about you and your habits than you know about them, any voter is open to manipulation," said Chris Calabrese, the privacy lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Neither presidential campaign would comment on how it targets voters.
"We have no interest in telling our opponents our digital strategy," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan. "However, this campaign has always and will continue to be an organization that respects and takes care to protect information that people share with us."

Mitt Romney's campaign, which also uses sophisticated microtargeting tactics, did not respond to requests for comment. Targeted Victory, a firm that specializes in digital political targeting, had done nearly $4 million of work for Romney's presidential campaign as of March. Targeted Victory's advertised services include reaching voters online using voter registration data. The company's co-founder, Zac Moffat, currently serves as the Romney campaign's digital director. Neither Moffat nor Targeted Victory would comment on whether the Romney campaign is using voter records to reach potential supporters online.

Microsoft would answer questions about its targeting services only through a public relations spokesperson, who also asked that her name not be used. Microsoft's chief privacy officer, Brendon Lynch, did not respond to requests for comment.
Yahoo would not comment on specific clients, but said it has worked with Democrats and Republicans.

The Republican National Committee worked with both Yahoo and AOL to match Internet users to voter lists in 2007, according to Becki Donatelli, co-founder of Connell Donatelli, one of the most prominent Republican digital strategy firms. Contacted by ProPublica, AOL would not explain how its targeting service works.

The Republican National Committee also wouldn't provide details about its practices, but a spokeswoman said, "Targeting is one part of a larger playbook we have and will continue to employ. We follow legal guidelines and industry best practices." The Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

When you see an online ad, you may assume it's comparable to a billboard — identical to everyone who walks by. But that's not the case for many ads. In the milliseconds it takes for a page to load, advertisers can identify a particular user visiting a site, and choose ads to display based on what they know about that user.

For instance, surfers may be shown a shoe ad if they recently visited a shoe site. Most of this sort of targeting doesn't require your name. Political targeting does. Campaigns may want to reach only reliable party members, or independents who might swing their way.

In order to do this, campaigns assemble lists of names from public records of voters they hope to reach, using such criteria as party registration, turnout history and previous donations. The campaigns often hire companies that harvest vast amounts of consumer data about individual Americans, further refining their voter lists with factors not publicly available such as income, education, magazine subscriptions, and purchasing habits.

Finding voters online is difficult, since no public record connects voters to a particular Internet address.

That's where Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and other lesser-known companies come in. Their enormous stores of registration data can serve as the bridge between particular Internet users and their voter information.

Online advertising is delivered with the help of cookies, tiny files that companies place on surfers' browsers. Cookies can be used to track people as they move from site to site, helping specialized firms most users have never heard of create detailed records of the sites users visit and the links they click. This tracking is typically done through anonymous ID numbers; the tracking firms and advertisers don't know you by name.

Microsoft and Yahoo's targeting service combines two crucial factors: their knowledge of users' personal information and their ability to add cookies to browsers. Over the years, Internet users have given these companies their name when they signed up for free programs like the Microsoft suite of services known as Windows Live, which includes Hotmail. (Microsoft said it does not sell campaigns access to information users provide when they register for Office or other Microsoft products they've bought.)

Microsoft and Yahoo both said the cookies aren't connected directly to names or other personally identifying information. Instead, they use a complicated process to match coded voter information back to anonymous cookies on particular users' browsers.

But many parts of the process remain unclear since the companies were reluctant to explain the details of their matching and targeting.

Microsoft said that the credit reporting giant Experian performs a "double-blind" match between Microsoft's data and campaigns' data. Yahoo uses another massive data company, Acxiom. Both Experian and Acxiom also offer similar matching for commercial clients who want to find previous customers online.

"They don't need your permission to do this," said William McGeveran, a data privacy expert at the University of Minnesota Law School. As long as a company has not explicitly promised users not to do this kind of matching, the process is legal for both political and commercial entities, McGeveran said.

Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL all point out that users who don't want to be targeted can opt out.

"At AOL, we take privacy very seriously," Caroline Campbell, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an email. "We strongly support self-regulation, consumer transparency and choice, and responsible uses of data."

The Network Advertising Initiative, an industry group, offers a one-page site that allows users to turn off targeted advertising from a long list of prominent companies. Another industry group, the Digital Advertising Alliance, also offers a one-page opt-out site.

But you need to realize you're being tracked before you can decide whether to opt out.

Under the online ad industry's self-regulations, most targeted ads are marked with a tiny blue triangle and a phrase like "Ad Choices." Web surfers can click on this icon, read some general information about targeted ads, and find a link to a page that will allow them to opt out of receiving such ads in the future. Few ever notice or understand the symbol.

Speaking to an industry audience at the CampaignTech conference in Washington, D.C., in April, Cotten, from Yahoo, said less than one percent of Yahoo's users have chosen to opt out of targeted advertising.

"Most users are not even cognizant that they're being targeted," he said.
Nor are the companies' privacy policies much help.

Microsoft's privacy policy makes no mention of matching people's names and Zip codes against voter lists.

The Microsoft online privacy highlights page notes that the company collects users' personal information, and that "We use the information we collect to provide the services you request. Our services may include the display of personalized content and advertising." Like Yahoo and other companies, Microsoft's privacy policy is broken up over several different Web pages.

In an "advertising privacy supplement" Microsoft explains it may target ads using data from other companies, as well as "demographic or interest data, including any you may have provided when creating a Windows Live ID (e.g. age, ZIP or postal code, gender)." It does not say whether it classifies users' first and last names as "demographic or interest data."

"You are in charge of deciding whether we know anything about you," Microsoft explains elsewhere. "But the more you tell us about yourself, the more we can help you find information or products you want."

Yahoo's more straightforward privacy policy on data matching explains that the company may combine its users' personally identifiable information with information from other companies in order to customize ads. It names CampaignGrid, a political targeting firm, as one company that helps Yahoo! "provide more relevant content and advertising." Yahoo told ProPublica users' registration data is "consensually provided."
AOL's advertising privacy policy explains that it may customize ads "by using the registration data or other household data you have provided or that we have acquired from other companies."

The voter matching process is still far from perfect. Blaise Hazelwood of Grassroots Targeting, a Republican firm, said that the process is expensive, and that it's typically only possible to locate 20 to 40 percent of a given list of voters online in a typical matching process.

"You're not getting everyone," she said, "but the people you get, it's great."
Hazelwood was one of the first to use this tactic. She worked with Resonate, a data and targeting company, to deliver online ads to groups of Louisiana voters during Bobby Jindal's 2007 gubernatorial campaign.

In a 2008 campaign supporting a California proposition to ban gay marriage, Republican firm Connell Donatelli targeted online ads at registered Democrats over the age of 55, Kate Kaye of Clickz News first reported. One of the firm's strategists compared online voter matching to "a stealth bomber."
This spring, the Federal Trade Commission, which maintains the national "Do Not Call" registry, called for Web companies to implement a "Do Not Track" mechanism "that would provide a simple, easy way for consumers to control the tracking of their online activities."

Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL have agreed to implement "Do Not Track," but how exactly websites and advertisers will have to respond to the setting isn't clear.
In a surprise move, Microsoft recently made "Do Not Track" the default setting for the latest version of Internet Explorer browser, a decision that has received fierce pushback from the advertising industry and a key policy group.

Defending its stance, Microsoft's chief privacy officer last week cited a recent Pew study that found that 68 percent of respondents "were 'Not OK' with targeted advertising."



Life Exclusive
US presidency: The muddle in Europe

The slowing down in Eurozone has global implications for American companies and this is likely to further affect the American economy which will directly have impact on the chances President Obama’s re-election

Spain became the fourth European country to get a bailout last weekend and though it was framed politely as a bailout for the Spanish banks it was difficult to hide the fact that it was a Spanish bailout. Portugal, Greece and Ireland have had received bailouts earlier. The Spanish bailout amounted to 100 billion euros whereas the Portugal bailout was 78 billion euros and the Irish bailout 67 billion euros. The biggest bailout was for Greece at 345 billion euros and Greece was not even grateful for it. There is a real possibility that after the elections on 17 June 2012 Greece would try to renegotiate the terms of bailout. But the Spanish bailout was the most serious of all as Spain is the fourth biggest Eurozone economy.

Further it was unlikely that the bailouts would give the so-called PIGS (Portugal, Ireland Greece and Spain) wings. The idea that the Euro was an irreversible project was suddenly in doubt. It was also clear that Spain would not be the last country in Europe requiring the bailout. There was talk of Cyprus being next and most worrying of all.

Much was uncertain but one thing was certain and that was the fact that the Europe was in crisis. Everyone was looking towards Germany for help. Germany was the only one with pockets deep enough to make a difference. German chancellor Angela Merkel was talking of deepening the Eurozone into a fiscal union but seeing the Greek reaction to the bailout that was unlikely to be greeted with hosannas. The question was how to deal with a multispeed Europe while a single currency is still open. Everyone is now wondering how no one thought it when the Eurozone was created. Some talked of a calibrated exit of Greece from the euro but no one really knew of all the consequences and no one was willing to take a chance. The freefall had been averted for the moment.
This has direct consequence for the US presidential election. The European Union and the US together account for half the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) and nearly a third of the trade flows. The slowing down in Eurozone has global implications for American companies. David Axlerod told Candy Crawely on the State of the Union programme on CNN that the “Storm clouds from Europe are on their way”. This is likely to further affect the American economy which will directly have impact on the chances President Obama’s re-election.

But along with economic mess Europe  has had two elections in the last month—one in France the second  largest Eurozone economy and the other one in Greece where the position of conservative was decisively rejected in favour of in policies of economic expansion. In France in Socialist Francois Hollande trounced the conservative President Nikolas Sarkozy to become president and in the Greek parliamentary election, the parties which supported the bailout failed to secure majority. A second election is to be held.

The conservative policies in Europe are not dissimilar to the Republican policies in the United States—they believe in running a tight fiscal shop with a smaller budget deficit and the stimulus in the economy comes by way of tax cuts. Whereas the socialist position is not dissimilar to the position of the Democratic party in the US which believes in growth through stimulating the economy through higher spending and reducing the fiscal deficit by taxing the rich.
So when the results came from Europe Bill Clinton seized the moment immediately and said “Why aren’t things roaring along now? And that is because the Republicans in Congress have adopted the European economic policies. But complicating the matter was the election for the recall of the governor Scott Walker in the mid-western state of Wisconsin where he had followed the policy of fiscal conservatism in extreme and he handily thumped the democratic challenger. Governor Mitt Romney was quick to seize the moment and announce that the message of Wisconsin was clear and that American did not want more policemen, firemen and teachers.  These were the very things that President Obama wanted Congress to do shore up jobs.
But the most surprising thing was some urged a new Marshall plan for Europe but for that they looked not towards the United States of America with its 14.5 trillion dollar deficit but towards Germany.
The results from Wisconsin on the face of it could not be more different from the results in France. But look a little deeper and it makes more sense. France tried to resort to fiscal cutting after expansion of many years. And it is after fiscal cutting, the French are now seeking expansion. Wisconsin and may be America are at a different stage. After expansion they are seeking fiscal cutting. So it may well be that the message from Europe may not reach America.

(Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier's College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master's in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.)




4 years ago

S&P has threatened to downgrade India to "junk" status...
the main reason they r giving is that India is not "opening" up the economy
and not doing enough "reforms"....
well just wanted to remind them....
India should reply to them that....
kindly keep ur f**king advice to urself......
we are still growing at 5-6%......
we dont need to go with a begging bowl for BAILOUT packages...
we r happy being what we are....
so bugger off u ba***rds.....

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