Online Buyer's Guide


Promotional versus Informational Content

It is increasingly difficult to distinguish between advertising and content in online media, as the lines between them blur. Not only are advertisements appearing in web banners, but they are attached to information "tickers," built into games, and written into "news" items. Targeted delivery of combined content and advertising tends to obscure any distinction between them. It takes a conscious effort to recognize the characteristics of advertisements in these unusual placements. Occasionally it is difficult to realize that entire corporate sites may be advertisements.

Visitor Information Gathering

In order to better market to a consumer's tastes and interests, online businesses frequently use "cookies," a little bit of text placed on your computer by the web sites you visit. (To learn more about cookies, see the Privacy and Security section.) Cookies help businesses identify you as a registered customer; track your purchases, movements, and actions; and develop an understanding of your interests. This information helps them tailor advertising more effectively on web sites and via email. Remember, too, that online registrations and applications–as well as special offers such as banner ads, coupons, special promotions, contests, sweepstakes, give-aways, discounts, and rebates–enable businesses to collect more personal information about you.

Express Your Preferences

Some people enjoy receiving targeted product information, but others would rather not receive it. To some extent, you can control the amount of marketing information that is targeted or directed to you. For example, you may wish to encourage targeted marketing if you'd like to receive particular news, updates, and discounts. Alternatively, you may wish to decrease your exposure, for more privacy or freedom from unwanted advertising.

Except for spam, you can take control of what is marketed to you online.

If you like to get direct marketing information:

If you donět like to get direct marketing information:

Opt-In versus Opt-Out Approaches

Find yourself getting junk mail you didn't request? You're in a database that's being shared among marketing departments or companies. If you could remove yourself, you would be opting out, or choosing the option to be removed from that database. When you call a company for a catalog, you are opting in, or joining its list. As we know from our practical daily lives, we do not have the option to choose removal from most marketing lists these days. Once you're in, you're everywhere.

Congress is currently considering legislation that would allow individuals to opt in or opt out of various databases. You should write to your congressperson voicing your opinion on your choice of practices.

Tech Law Journal's Summary of Anti-Spam Legislation


Many online products and companies are those you already know from catalogs or your neighborhood. A brand name often comes with a dependability and reputation you know about.

Be aware that brands you are familiar with may be linked to unrelated sites and services of separate businesses, with different histories, policies, and practices. Each linked site should be researched separately. Remember that the linked company's site is not covered by your vendor's policies.


Unsolicited commercial email (UCE), also called "junk email" or "spam," continues to plague us like a bad cold. In general, people do not want their e-mailbox clogged with ads promoting pornography, unwanted products or services, or come-ons for the latest get-rich-quick scheme. Many people abandon the use of their online accounts when junk email gets to be more onerous than the account is beneficial.

Spam is such a hot-button topic among Internet users that anti-spam legislation has been passed by Congress and continues to be a topic of debate among lawmakers. Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) publish Acceptable Use Policies (AUP) which prohibit sending spam. Account holders agree to these conditions when they sign up for an account; violations can result in having their accounts closed and possibly being assessed fines. Still, it's a prevalent practice. (For more on this topic, be sure to check out the Protection from Internet Fraud section.)

Be aware that most spam senders do not care if you are interested in their email or not. It's free to them. Most will not remove you from their lists, and in fact will use your request to confirm that your email address is working, which makes their database more valuable for resale to other spammers. Some spammers use a reference to a Murkowski Bill making their activities legal–there's no such law, and their activities are not legal.

Sample Acceptable Use Policy

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