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The number of people who see an advertisement on the Internet and click on it to get more information is growing. For these people, the Internet is a means of streamlining commerce. Depending on the sophistication of the ad, the viewer may be able to get product information, comparison information on other products, a listing of current vendors who sell the product (along with the price each charges), and an electronic order form. The Internet allows people to purchase anything from travel tickets to groceries online, and people are drawn to online products via ads.

It is also true that people who have clicked on an online ad have in all likelihood provided the advertiser with a way to collect information about them. Some of this information may seem innocuous—a favorite hobby, product preferences. In some cases, however, the site may gather more information about viewers than they realize, and it may do so more actively than they wish.

Because the Internet is a relatively new phenomenon (having become popular as a communications tool in the 1990s), there are still a number of questions about how to use it effectively. Moreover, because the Internet exchanges information between computers, it allows users to be “tracked” to varying degrees. Not surprisingly, this ability has made the Internet a particularly attractive tool for advertisers and marketers. An advertisement placed on the Internet has the potential to reach literally millions of people anywhere in the world, at a fraction of the cost of traditional print or broadcast advertising. As with traditional advertising, some people welcome the information, while others simply wish to be left alone. In most cases this is not a problem; an Internet user who sees an ad has the option of clicking it and being put on an electronic mailing list if he or she chooses, while someone who is not interested can ignore the ad. In fact, many people do wish to be placed on such lists. Being on these lists might allow a consumer to receive information about new products and special offers via email. To some, this is seen as a convenience.

Some Internet sites, however, are set up to collect information about visitor usage patterns. They use this information to target potential customers via mail, telephone, and email. For every person who sees this as a convenience, there is someone else who views it as a threat to security and privacy. Al-though the issue will likely be a work in progress for some time, various groups in the government and the private sector are working to ensure that Internet advertising is safe and secure and that it respects the privacy of viewers and customers.

Inside Advertising