Law in the Internet Society

Who's Afraid of Targeted Advertising?

-- By DanielLennard - 09 Jan 2013

A recent article in the New York Times (“Your Online Attention, Bought in an Instant”) emphasizes the negative implications of real-time online bidding. I believe that some of the practices associated with real-time bidding—namely those connected with the stealth collection of particular kinds of data—are profoundly troubling. However, I think it is important to disentangle the frightening implications of data collection from the more benign implications of its ultimate purpose: targeted advertising.

Targeted advertising is big business. Countless (and uncountable) marketers are relentlessly jockeying for each web users’ attention. The level of precision is astounding; companies now auction off ad space to marketers at the very instant a web user connects to a webpage. Data collection companies snatch personal information from users whenever and wherever they can get it. Marketers purchase this information, or services relying on this information, to sharpen their focus on particular users.

This massive data collection apparatus raises serious concerns. Data collectors claim that the information they snatch is “anonymous” since users are identified only by customer codes. Yet these codes are essentially identification cards for nameless, though very real, individuals. One particularly alarming practice is “rogue data collection,” wherein site operators leak personal information—including names and addresses—to third party trackers (e.g., a bidding platform or an information reseller), who let the information loose to other data collectors. With so much information changing hands, there are bound to be leaks of sensitive personal information. The collection and transfer of personal data relating to finances, health, and political choices and activities deserve much better protection. The FTC should more closely monitor and regulate the companies that collect and distribute such data.

The Times article focused largely on the purported fears of targeted advertising, highlighting how the practice stratifies individuals based on their commercial preferences, preys on individuals’ weaknesses, and turns them into “chattel” for sale. The article quotes a computer scientist suggesting a “Kafkaesque future…where decisions are being made about you and you don’t know what the criteria are based on.”

The future is now. In fact, marketers have been practicing and refining these techniques for decades. The web has simply made marketing much more personalized. Although targeted advertising is largely fueled by a practice that could lead to dire consequences, that does not make targeted advertising an evil. An immoral or illegal practice does not necessarily create products that are immoral or illegal. Even if the product is dangerous, these products, in some cases, may simply obfuscate the more pernicious system underlying them.

I find targeting advertising, in and of itself, to be unsettling but largely benign. Some people may have a problem with Google or any other service garnering that I enjoy reading biographies, or that I am travelling to California in January – but I personally do not. Unless I’m looking to avoid detection of some activity or preference, I do not see the purpose of ensuring my own anonymity. Further, if someone wants to remain anonymous with regard to some activity, one can take some fairly basic precautions to avoid the marketers’ gaze.

I fully acknowledge that the pervasive reach of marketers and advertisers is subject to criticism on various grounds. It would be difficult to defend the industry in terms of its broader sociological and psychological effect on individuals. But I believe these criticisms fall largely outside the realm of what laws should and should not do. At this point in time, web users must realize that the vast majority of their online activity can be tracked and commodified. This is the essence of the Internet today; it is regrettable but seemingly irreversible.

How much of the argument depends on this tendentious point? Suppose for a moment it isn't irreversible. Then is it still okay? If not, isn't the whole argument just propaganda for the "surrender, there's no point in resisting" crowd?

In my mind, the focus should be on installing strict controls on data collection and transfer. To lament the loss of some privacy and to raise fears about targeting advertising seems futile at this juncture.

Strict controls on data collection and transfer could be called "massive First Amendment violation," right?

As with the first essay, the route to revision is to take a little more seriously the arguments on the other side. You don't actually deal with what anyone else thinks is not benign about commercial surveillance. You don't support the crucial intermediate conclusion that the way the Web works is something we have no power to change. If those two weaknesses were resolved, the essay would be much stronger overall.

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r2 - 31 Mar 2013 - 16:34:03 - EbenMoglen
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