Internet users these days are largely accustomed to having their activity tracked by the services they use: Google reads your Gmail. Facebook monitors which stories you click on. And so on.
Now Verizon wants to expand its role in this universe by sharing what it knows about you with AOL.
What makes this potentially controversial is not only the growing role broadband providers play in data collection and ad targeting generally, but the specific technology Verizon is deploying to that end. Verizon is using what experts call a "supercookie," a piece of software that helps distinguish you from everyone else on the Internet. Supercookies, as my colleague Craig Timberg explained last year, are more advanced than traditional tracking cookies in that they can't really be erased. Nor can they be circumvented using private or incognito browsing sessions.
By combining the supercookie with AOL's substantial ad network in November, Verizon will be able to give AOL detailed profiles of your mobile usage. (The data is anonymized to make it harder to link back to you, but privacy experts say no amount of anonymizing is ever really foolproof.) Depending on your perspective, Verizon's plan could allow AOL to serve you with better ads. Or it could just better allow AOL to serve you ads, period.
Verizon says doing things this way actually helps protect your privacy, because all the tracking and sharing is being done within one company. Still, Verizon Wireless customers are automatically being tracked unless they change their account settings or call the company. Verizon is also upfront about the fact that steps you would ordinarily take to block cookies won't work.
"Please note that using browser controls such as clearing cookies on your devices or clearing your browser history is not an effective way to opt out of the Verizon or AOL advertising programs," the company says in its privacy notice, which was first reported by ProPublica.
In addition to sharing your online habits with AOL, Verizon also says it will give your data to partners that provide "Verizon or AOL services." There's reason to wonder what unintended consequences that could have. Researchers discovered in January that a third-party advertising company had been using Verizon's supercookie to improve its own tracking of Internet users.
Despite a rising debate about whether people should be able to block Internet ads, broadband providers appear eager to tap into the $49.5 billion-a-year Web advertising business. It's all part of a larger trend by carriers to monetize the provision of Internet access and the data flowing across their networks. In some cities, AT&T gives its fixed broadband customers a discount if they agree to let the company track their browsing habits. The Caribbean-based wireless carrier Digicel said recently that it will only allow ads on its network if the companies behind them pay a fee.
Verizon's attempt to gain leverage in the online advertising industry began with its acquisition of AOL. The tie-up was said to help Verizon pull in more money from online video advertising. But the addition of the supercookie suggests that the company has greater ambitions: It wants advertisers to know that it can place highly targeted ads just like the best of them on any Verizon service or property. And that will be worth a ton, thanks in part to you.