Smerconish: The internet is stalking me

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More and more, advertising networks are using cookies to follow users across the web. (Credit: AP, 2008)

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Ann Richards is stalking me.

Yes, I'm referring to the silver-tongued former governor of Texas. The politician who once said about women: "If you give us the chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."

She once said of fellow Texan George H.W. Bush: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."


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I know what you're thinking. Didn't she pass? Indeed she did, back in 2006, but that doesn't seem to be stopping her.

She's been after me since March 4, when I was in New York City and thought I'd check on ticket price and availability for a new, one-woman Broadway show called "Ann," starring Holland Taylor, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. There's great buzz around the show and the one-liners from Richards it features, including this one:

"I musta drunk eleven hundred thousand martinis by the time I landed in A.A. - and by then, I was this big ol' county commissioner! So I like to think I broke a barrier for politicians with an addiction in their past. And nowadays, hell, you can't hardly even get into a primary unless you've done time in rehab."

I logged onto the official website for the play, probably spent less than five minutes perusing possible seat locations, and decided to pass for now. That must have offended Ann, because she's been following me ever since.

She popped up when I was reading the Philadelphia Inquirer story about reaction to the controversial cover story in Philadelphia Magazine titled "Being White in Philly."

And there she was while I was reading a Washington Post story about a 16-year-old boy who sneaked out of his house to attend a party and, trying to return home after drinking, entered a neighbor's house instead of his own. He was fatally shot by the neighbor.

And there was Ann above a Politico story on a radio executive who said the financial ramifications of Rush Limbaugh's offensive comment about Sandra Fluke were still being felt by that industry.

Even when my random search to confirm what songs appeared on Carole King's epic 1971 album "Tapestry" landed me at something called sing365.com, there was Ann, smiling at me through red lipstick, looking Nancy Reagan-regal in a white suit.

I'm creeped out at the idea that Ann Richards knows my Internet preferences. It's enough to make me see the show just to get her to stop following me.

But an expert on this sort of online marketing doesn't think it will be so easy to shake her. Joseph Turow is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth." Turow told me that the ads I keep seeing are manifestations of what people in the ad industry call "remarketing" or "retargeting."

"The way it often works is this: An advertising network makes a deal with a website (say, that play's website) to place cookies - little anonymous ID files - into the browsers of the computers that visit the site," Turow explained. "That same firm has negotiated the same right to do that on hundreds of thousands of other sites. When you arrive at other sites where the network has those 'tag' rights, the network's computer sees its cookie and records that you have been there.

"The network can also serve ads on those sites that reflect the interests of advertisers who want to retarget you based on what you looked at earlier, based on the cookie tracking. The network shares the revenues it makes from the ad with the website on which the ad is served."

In my case, Turow said I had been to a number of sites where a company that was remarketing the Richards play had its cookies. He said this is the most common example of "behavioral targeting" today, and that he himself experienced it when recently shopping for a camera lens.

If I go to the play, will Richards leave me alone? "Probably not," Turow said.

"But often, what these companies do is, they have a limit in the number of times they target you," he said. "And sometimes if you clean your cookies, that would go away.

"Another way to do it, by the way, is, if you use different browsers, you wouldn't see it on one browser but you would see it on another browser, because the browsers are cookie-based. More and more, there's a problem with phones because a lot of phones don't accept cookies, and particularly what's called third-party cookies. For example, Apple phones don't."

I told him this sounds like the Internet version of what I've experienced via U.S. mail. For example, I was sent a Lands' End catalog soon after I placed an order at L.L. Bean, even though I had not requested the former.

Turow's reply: "So what you've touched on is a nerve that if you follow it through, it courses through the entire body of the Web, and it's a very interesting thing, but only the tip, only really one nerve, in a huge and expanding organism that is being created."

Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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