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How Microsoft and Yahoo Are Selling Politicians Access to You

Campaigns use voters records to assemble lists of people they're trying to reach. Microsoft and Yahoo help campaigns find these people online and then send them tailored ads.

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AOL's advertising privacy policy explains that it may customize ads "by using the registration data or other household data you have provided or that we have acquired from other companies."

The voter matching process is still far from perfect. Blaise Hazelwood of Grassroots Targeting, a Republican firm, said that the process is expensive, and that it's typically only possible to locate 20 to 40 percent of a given list of voters online in a typical matching process.

"You're not getting everyone," she said, "but the people you get, it's great."

Hazelwood was one of the first to use this tactic. She worked with Resonate, a data and targeting company, to deliver online ads to groups of Louisiana voters during Bobby Jindal's 2007 gubernatorial campaign.

In a 2008 campaign supporting a California proposition to ban gay marriage, Republican firm Connell Donatelli targeted online ads at registered Democrats over the age of 55, Kate Kaye of Clickz News first reported. One of the firm's strategists compared online voter matching to " a stealth bomber."

This spring, the Federal Trade Commission, which maintains the national "Do Not Call" registry, called for Web companies to implement a "Do Not Track" mechanism "that would provide a simple, easy way for consumers to control the tracking of their online activities."

Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL have agreed to implement "Do Not Track," but how exactly websites and advertisers will have to respond to the setting isn't clear.

In a surprise move, Microsoft recently made "Do Not Track" the default setting for the latest version of Internet Explorer browser, a decision that has received fierce pushback from the advertising industry and a key policy group.

Defending its stance, Microsoft's chief privacy officer last week cited a recent Pew study that found that 68 percent of respondents "were 'Not OK' with targeted advertising."

Lois Beckett has reported on changes in the news industry for the Nieman Journalism Lab. She was a 2010 Village Voice Media Fellow at the SF Weekly. She has written for the Times of India, the Accra Daily Mail, and the Reading Eagle, among others. She graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Social Studies.