Law in the Internet Society

Reconsidering The Role of Advertising In a 'Free Internet'

The technology companies that enable online advertising (e.g. Google) often tout the immense social benefit that online advertising brings – a free internet. By that, they mean that advertising enables consumers to access content for free as publishers monetize their content by enabling user-targeted advertising. On the other side, advertisers are willing to pay a higher premium to place their ads alongside content they think will drive user engagement and to target users that meet the specific requirements on their campaign. My first job out of college was building and targeting the algorithms for these ad campaigns to make sure the right audience saw the right advertisement. While I would joke with friends that I was the person following them around the internet with that pair of shoes they once clicked on an ad for, the truth was it didn’t seem all that nefarious to me. We optimized the ads to get you to click more, or watch longer, or better yet to buy a product – and publishers made money because of it. We even made a concerted push to deactivate ‘bots’ and fake websites that distorted the market – all in service of making ‘a better internet’.

In the service of making this ‘free internet’ sustainable for publishers, effective for advertisers, and incredibly profitable for everyone in the middle, tech companies can now track users across every site. If I, at a mid-sized ad-tech company, could run an analysis on any individual user id and see the 30+ sites they visited online before making a purchase, the scope of what major tech companies can do is hard to fathom. Until recently however, I thought it didn’t quite matter. However, it is becoming increasing clear that by enabling tracking of this magnitude, we have also created a tool that can be used to manipulate our behavior in all the sorts of ways we talk about in this class and read about every day.

So, we must consider what alternatives are in place to ensure people’s access to content without exploiting their data.

One alternative is to turn back the clock to a world of advertising that can’t target users accurately or focuses on content-specific advertising similar to Buzzfeed’s listicles today. Similarly, a GDPR-like approach could allow users to self-identify into certain user categories for targeting. However, this cannot be the driving solution because it does not create the mindset shift that is so critical to rethinking our privacy. Any such solution would likely lead us to the same place we are today in a matter of months.

Another is to switch to a user-supported model, like Wikipedia or other forms of free software. This option has some potential downfalls. First, not every publisher will survive. Second, such a system could be used to further fuel polarization and disinformation on the internet. For example, users may only pay for certain content and shut themselves off from opposing viewpoints, and publishers may continue to peddle disinformation. One of the key pillars of the US’s take on freedom of speech is that the marketplace of ideas acts to quash misinformation and extreme ideas – this could be jeopardized if viewers are ‘walled off’ from diverse content.

However, while the above is frightening to behold, I believe it stems largely from the way we have been taught to conceive of the free internet and advertising as integral to one another. Initiatives such as Scroll (which allows for ad-free access to a host of diverse sites for a small fee) challenge that mentality, as does the user-supported model followed by The Guardian. By removing the significant dependence on ads I have little doubt that content-producers will continue to adapt and find innovative ways to generate revenue. Similarly, I believe consumers of content will step up and contribute – both in kind and in money – to access their content. This does not have to take the form of a NYT-type subscription (which could exclude those without means) but a crowd-based one a la Wikipedia. Perhaps with even more respect and appreciation for the content that is being created.

One alternative proposition pushed forward by Jaron Lanier amongst others is for individuals to be paid for their data. Any time you post a photo and a tech company gobbles your data only to then track your friend who likes it (and so on), you get a cut. He estimates a small household could make $20,000 a year through this process. Even if the infrastructure and technology to do so existed – he admits it doesn’t – this also does not strike me as an appropriate solution. The moment someone has paid us for our data they gain the right to do whatever they want with it. At that point, we normalize a practice in which companies can sell our information to manipulate what we buy, where we go, who we vote for and almost every other facet of our lives. The commodification of data seems almost like a clear sign that we’ve lost the war, not just the battle.

Looking forward, it is clear that we have to challenge the assumption that user-based advertising is the only thing keeping us the internet free and accessible. If anything, the numerous scandals of the last few years demonstrate that the user information gathered to allegedly enable advertising only is turning the internet into a dystopian nightmare, with user manipulation and disinformation taking front and center. Such a shift would undoubtedly be difficult given the immense power of companies such as Facebook and Google, but it is one that can be driven by users and publishers just as much (if not more-so) than by regulation.

-- DaphneL - 14 Oct 2019


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r3 - 02 Feb 2020 - 20:14:28 - DaphneL
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