I recently read an article about how companies track Internet searches to aid in marketing of products and rejection of credit applications. It is certainly easy to see what banks will do with credit applicants who search for “do I have to pay my mortgage,” or what life insurers will do with policy applicants who search for “skyscrapers that let you bungee jump.”
But Internet searches do not always fall into such neat categories. What will companies make of someone who searches for how long mayonnaise can stay on the counter before it can no longer be served to his in-laws? Or who trolls YouTube for the opening credits to the 1980s cartoon “He-Man and Masters of the Universe”? Or who wants to know if Marilyn Manson is really the same guy who played Paul Pfeiffer on “The Wonder Years”? (For the record, he is not.)
I can see the corporate scientists in the laboratory now. There is a monitor showing me sitting at my computer, searching for the video of “The King Is Half-Undressed,” the hit single by the 1990s pop band, Jellyfish.
“What is he looking at?” asks the Google overlord to his underling at the monitor.
“Well, sir, he’s watching a Jellyfish video.”
“Like one of those squishy things at the beach?”
“No, sir. Jellyfish the West Coast pop band that, true to its name, was short lived yet influential.”
“What’s with all the tambourines? Every member of the band has a tambourine. There’s even a tambourine coming out of that guy’s head.”
“I think it’s supposed to be a conceptual video, sir. How shall we proceed?”
“Charge him an extra three points on his mortgage,” says the overlord, taking a sip from his coffee mug that says “World’s Best Dad” and shifting focus to a monitor focused on someone searching for videos of people falling down the stairs.
What will health insurance companies make of my visits to the Internet Movie Database, where I’ve analyzed the career paths of the actors who starred on the Nickelodeon sketch-comedy show “You Can’t Do That On Television”? Perhaps they will call it a pre-existing condition, and raise my co-pays for hospital stays and prescriptions for green slime.
Perhaps this is all for the better. Perhaps online search tracking will enable companies to bring us better products. Perhaps one day I’ll finally come home to a cat that plays the piano.
A positive use of online tracking would be to tell us what our friends have been searching for. Then we would know what to buy them for their birthdays. Maybe one day I’ll sign in to Facebook and get a reminder that it’s so-and-so’s birthday, along with a note that so-and-so is really interested in action figures that don’t melt in the microwave.
Of course, the real issue with online tracking is privacy. No one wants to go through cyberspace labeled as someone who likes hats and pictures of skin diseases. And I’m sorry, but it is no one’s business if you need to know how much Jennifer Aniston spent on cereal last month.
So I’m confident that Congress will move heaven and earth to pass an online privacy law that will be thousands of pages long and will do absolutely nothing to stop online tracking. But maybe the law will make the companies at least tell us why we’re suddenly being sent samples of mayonnaise that do not need to be refrigerated.