Reading the fineprint determines your online advertising profile

Thomas Oscanyan, software asset manager for the University of St. Thomas, recommends that software and social media users read terms and conditions carefully and decline if they find something they disagree with.
Photo By: Ricki Williams
“The challenge is to not only read, but understand and decline the terms if you find something within that you disagree with.” -- Thomas Oscanyan

Advertisers on the Internet aren’t telepathic, but they still know what you’re thinking.

“When you post, ‘I’m gonna buy flowers for my mother,’ you’ll see an advertisement for a flower shop either instantly, or in the next few days,” said Amanda Lenhart, senior researcher for Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, in Washington, D.C.

According to Bao Nguyen, that’s not a coincidence. As the vice president of tech research and development with AOL in Palo Alto, Calif., Nguyen works to place advertisements on personal computers that are best suited for an online user at a specific moment.

Nguyen uses software to track websites people visit on the internet. Think of it as a GPS system that follows where you go on the web.

Nguyen simply gathers data from users’ online activity, which he then sells to advertisers. While this information includes an individual’s interests, Nguyen said he doesn’t collect anything that will specifically identify them.

Companies like Facebook make their money by selling your information and ‘likes’ to advertisers. This information is worth a lot because the advertisers can show you the right advertisement at the right time, or when they think you’re more likely to purchase that specific item or service.

The “Terms and Conditions” of websites and software are written to allow them access to your personal information in order to personalize the ads you are shown.

“It all seems fine, and it looks great, but the thing is, the terms of service agreement is a barrier. It is standing between you and what you want,” said Thomas Oscanyan, a software asset manager at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. “The challenge is to not only read, but understand and decline the terms if you find something within that you disagree with.”

Facebook, in particular, has a fairly confusing contradiction in its Data Use Policy. In one section, Facebook says, “We do not share any of your information with advertisers, (unless, of course, you give us permission).” What this should mean to the user is that unless they directly allow Facebook to share their information with advertisers, Facebook will be legally unable to pass it along.

However, Facebook has written a loophole for itself in a different section. Facebook says, “We don’t share information we receive about you with others unless we have “… given you notice, such as by telling you about it in this policy.”

Three seniors at the Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley acknowledged that they never read the terms and conditions on websites.

“The language used is too complicated,” Kayleigh Hartland said.

Whereas Bailey Zander simply doesn’t have time to read the small print, Zai Rutter said she doesn’t “post [stuff] I’m embarrassed about.”

Since Oscanyan gets paid to read what teens and adults often don’t want to, he’s more attentive to what’s hidden in those “difficult” to navigate agreements. Oscanyan cited the Adobe Terms of Use as one users might want to pay closer attention to.

For example, the agreement says, “You may not use the Services if you do not agree to the Terms.” Adobe then goes on to state, “You may accept the Terms … by merely browsing the Services.” This is a red flag for Oscanyan because it means that by simply going to the website and looking at products or services Adobe offers, you automatically agree to its terms.

This is a concern for a larger entity, such as the University of St. Thomas, but Oscanyan is also concerned about what it could mean for the everyday Internet user. It’s part of the trade-off that Internet users don’t always think about. What might be free and easy to scan in terms of content could cost you in other ways.

“When you log onto the AOL page, you see all the content that is free for you. It costs the company money to put the content online, so in return, what you give up is the information AOL is allowed to track and sell to advertisers,” Nguyen said.

Lenhart puts the dilemma back on the technology user: “You have to answer a couple questions: ‘Are you concerned about having ads be specifically targeted to you, or do you kind of like it?’ You have to ask yourself that when you start an account, when you open a Gmail account, that you’ll be searched for keywords. That’s part of the exchange,” she said.

“You get Gmail for free in exchange for having keywords searched so ads are delivered to you. Maybe you should think about a different kind of e-mail system. Maybe for pay, or choose more carefully what you share in your e-mail. Ultimately, that will help decide what advertising gets delivered to you.”