TECHNOLOGY

I’m Being Followed: How Google — and 104 Other Companies — Track Me on the Web

Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic
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Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic
March 1, 2012, 6:58 a.m.

On Thursday morn­ing, if you opened your browser and went to NYTimes.com, an amaz­ing thing happened in the mil­li­seconds between your click and when the news about North Korea and James Mur­doch ap­peared on your screen. Data from this single vis­it was sent to 10 dif­fer­ent com­pan­ies, in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft and Google sub­si­di­ar­ies, a gaggle of traffic-log­ging sites, and oth­er, smal­ler ad firms. Nearly in­stant­an­eously, these com­pan­ies can log your vis­it, place ads tailored for your eyes spe­cific­ally, and add to the ever-grow­ing on­line file about you.

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There’s noth­ing ne­ces­sar­ily sin­is­ter about this sub­ter­ranean data ex­change: This is, after all, the ad­vert­ising eco­sys­tem that sup­ports free on­line con­tent. All the data lets ad­vert­isers tune their ads, and the rest of the in­form­a­tion log­ging lets them meas­ure how well things are ac­tu­ally work­ing. And I do not mean to pick on The New York Times. While vis­it­ing The Huff­ing­ton Post or The At­lantic or Busi­ness In­sider, the same pro­cess hap­pens to a great­er or less­er de­gree. Every move you make on the In­ter­net is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of com­pan­ies want to make sure that no step along your In­ter­net jour­ney goes un­mon­et­ized.

Even if you’re gen­er­ally fa­mil­i­ar with the idea of data col­lec­tion for tar­geted ad­vert­ising, the num­ber and vari­ety of these data col­lect­ors will prob­ably as­ton­ish you. Al­low me to in­tro­duce the list of com­pan­ies that tracked my move­ments on the In­ter­net in one re­cent 36-hour peri­od of stand­ard Web surf­ing: Acerno. Adara Me­dia. Ad­blade. Ad­brite. ADC Onion. Ad­chemy. ADi­FY. Ad­Meld. Adtech. Ag­greg­ate Know­ledge. Al­mond­Net. Aper­ture. AppNex­us. At­las. Audi­ence Sci­ence.

And that’s just the A’s. My com­plete list in­cludes 105 com­pan­ies, and there are dozens more than that in ex­ist­ence. You, too, could com­pile your own list us­ing Moz­illa’s tool, Col­lu­sion, which re­cords the com­pan­ies that are cap­tur­ing data about you, or more pre­cisely, your di­git­al self.

While the big names — Google, Mi­crosoft, Face­book, Ya­hoo, etc. — show up in this cata­log, the bulk of it is com­posed of smal­ler data and ad­vert­ising busi­nesses that form a shad­ow web of com­pan­ies that want to help show you ad­vert­ising that you’re more likely to click on and products that you’re more likely to pur­chase.

To be clear, these com­pan­ies gath­er data without at­tach­ing it to your name; they use that data to show you ads you’re stat­ist­ic­ally more likely to click. That’s the game, and there is sub­stan­tial money in it.

As users, we move through our In­ter­net ex­per­i­ences un­aware of the churn­ing sub­ter­ranean ma­chines power­ing our Web pages with their cook­ies and pixels track­ers, their track­ing code and data­bases. We shop for wed­ding cater­ers and sud­denly see ring ads ap­pear on ran­dom Web pages we’re vis­it­ing. We some­times think the ads fol­low­ing us around the In­ter­net are “creepy.” We some­times feel watched. Does it mat­ter? We don’t really know what to think.

The is­sues the in­dustry raises did not ex­ist when Ron­ald Re­agan was pres­id­ent and were only in nas­cent form when the Twin Towers fell. These are phe­nom­ena of our time, and while there are many ante­cedent forms of ad­vert­ising, nev­er be­fore in the his­tory of hu­man ex­ist­ence has so much data been gathered about so many people for the sole pur­pose of selling them ads.

“The best minds of my gen­er­a­tion are think­ing about how to make people click ads,” my old friend and an early Face­book em­ploy­ee Jeff Ham­merbach­er once said. “That sucks,” he ad­ded. But in­creas­ingly I think these is­sues — how we move “freely” on­line, or more prop­erly, how we pay one way or an­oth­er — are ac­tu­ally the lead­ing edge of a much big­ger dis­cus­sion about the re­la­tion­ship between our di­git­al and phys­ic­al selves. I don’t mean the­or­et­ic­ally or psy­cho­lo­gic­ally. I mean that the norms es­tab­lished to im­prove how of­ten people click ads may end up de­term­in­ing who you are when viewed by a bank or a ro­mantic part­ner or a re­tail­er who sells shoes.

Already, the web­sites you vis­it re­shape them­selves be­fore you like a car­ni­vor­ous school of fish, and this is only the be­gin­ning. Right now, a huge chunk of what you’ve ever looked at on the In­ter­net is sit­ting in data­bases all across the world. The line sep­ar­at­ing all that it might say about you, good or bad, is as thin as the let­ters of your name. If and when that wall breaks down, the num­bers may over­whelm the name. The un­con­sciously cre­ated pro­file may mean more than the ex­amined self I’ve sought to build.

Most pri­vacy de­bates have been couched in the tech­nic­al. We read about how Google by­passed Sa­fari’s pri­vacy set­tings, whatever those were. Or we read the de­tails about how Face­book tracks you with those friendly “Like” but­tons. Be­hind the de­tails, however, are a tangle of philo­soph­ic­al is­sues that are at the heart of the struggle between pri­vacy ad­voc­ates and on­line ad­vert­ising com­pan­ies: What is an­onym­ity? What is iden­tity? How sim­il­ar are hu­mans and ma­chines? This es­say is an at­tempt to think through those ques­tions.

The bad news is that people haven’t taken con­trol of the data that’s be­ing col­lec­ted and traded about them. The good news is that — in a quite lit­er­al sense — simply think­ing dif­fer­ently about this ad­vert­ising busi­ness can change the way that it works. After all, if you take these com­pan­ies at their word, they ex­ist to serve users as much as to serve their cli­ents.

***

Be­fore we get too deep, let’s talk about the real­ity of the on­line dis­play ad­vert­ising in­dustry. (That means, es­sen­tially, all the ads not as­so­ci­ated with a Web search.) There are a dizzy­ing ar­ray of com­pan­ies and ser­vices who can all make a buck by help­ing ad­vert­isers tar­get you a teensy, weensy bit bet­ter than the next guy. These are com­pan­ies that must prove them­selves quite nar­rowly in meas­ur­able rev­en­ue and profit; the com­pet­i­tion is fierce, the prize is large, and the strategies are ever-chan­ging. Here’s the cor­al-reef level di­versity of cor­por­ate life in dis­play ad­vert­ising, as cata­loged by Luma Part­ners a little over a year ago:

Don’t get too caught up in all of that, though. There are three ba­sic cat­egor­ies: Es­sen­tially, there are people who help the buy­ers (on the left), people who help the sellers (on the right), and a whole lot of people who as­sist either side with more data or faster ser­vice or bet­ter meas­ure­ment. Let’s zoom in on three of them — just from the A’s — to give you an idea of the kinds of out­fits we’re talk­ing about.

Let’s look at three com­pan­ies from our list of A’s. Ad­netik is a stand­ard tar­get­ing com­pany that uses real-time bid­ding. They can of­fer tar­geted ads based on how users act (be­ha­vi­or­al), who they are (demo­graph­ic), where they live (geo­graph­ic), and who they seem like on­line (look-alike), as well as something they call “so­cial prox­im­ity.” They also give ad­vert­isers the abil­ity to choose the types of sites on which their ads will run based on “para­met­ers like pub­lish­er brand equity, con­tex­tu­al rel­ev­ance to the ad­vert­iser, brand safety, level of ad clut­ter, and con­tent qual­ity.”

It’s worth not­ing how dif­fer­ent this prac­tice is from tra­di­tion­al ad­vert­ising. The so­cial con­tract between ad­vert­isers and pub­lic­a­tions used to be that pub­lic­a­tions gathered par­tic­u­lar types of people in­to something called an audi­ence, then ad­vert­isers pur­chased ads in that pub­lic­a­tion to reach that audi­ence. There was an art to it, and some pub­lic­a­tions had cachet while oth­ers didn’t. On­line ad­vert­ising upends all that: Now you can buy the audi­ence without the pub­lic­a­tion. You want an At­lantic read­er? Great! Some ad net­work can sell you someone who has been to The At­lantic but is now read­ing about hand lo­tion at Know­YourHand­Lo­tions.com. And they’ll sell you that set of eye­balls for a fifth of the price. You can bid in real time on a set of those eye­balls across mil­lions of sites without ever talk­ing to an ad­vert­ising sales­per­son. (Of course, such a tradeoff has costs, which we’ll see soon.)

Ad­netik also of­fers a ser­vice called “re­tar­get­ing” that an­oth­er A com­pany, Ad­Roll, spe­cial­izes in. Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re an on­line shoe mer­chant. Someone comes to your store but doesn’t pur­chase any­thing. While they’re there, you drop a cook­ie on them. There­after you can tar­get ads to them, know­ing that they’re at least mildly in­ter­ested. Even bet­ter, you can drop cook­ies on every­one who comes to look at shoes and then watch to see who comes back to buy. Those people be­come your train­ing data, and soon you’re only “re­tar­get­ing” those people with a data pro­file that in­dic­ates that they’re likely to pur­chase something from you even­tu­ally. It’s slick, es­pe­cially if people don’t no­tice that the pairs of shoes they found the will­power not to pur­chase just hap­pen to be show­ing up on their fa­vor­ite garden­ing sites.

There are many power­ful things you can do once you’ve got data on a user, so the big wor­ries for on­line ad­vert­isers shift to the in­vent­ory it­self. Pur­chas­ing a page in a magazine is a pro­cess through which ad­vert­isers have sig­ni­fic­ant con­trol; but these types of on­line ads could con­ceiv­ably run any­where. After all, many ad net­works need all the in­vent­ory they can get, so they sign up all kinds of con­tent pro­viders. And that’s where our third com­pany comes in­to play.

Ad­Ex­pose, now a com­Score com­pany, watches where and how ads are run to de­term­ine if their pur­chasers got their money’s worth. “Up to 80 per­cent of in­ter­act­ive ads are sold and resold through third parties,” they put it on their web­site. “This daisy­chain­ing brings down the value of on­line ads and ad­vert­isers don’t al­ways know where their ads have run.” To solve that prob­lem, Ad­Ex­pose claims to provide in­de­pend­ent veri­fic­a­tion of an ad’s place­ment.

All three com­pan­ies want to know as much about me and what’s on my screen as they pos­sibly can, al­though they have dif­fer­ent reas­ons for their in­terest. None of them seem like evil com­pan­ies, nor are they sin­gu­lar com­pan­ies. Like much of this in­dustry, they seem to be­lieve in what they’re do­ing. They de­liv­er more rel­ev­ant ad­vert­ising to con­sumers and that makes more money for com­pan­ies. They are simply tools to im­prove the grip strength of the in­vis­ible hand.

***

And yet, the rev­el­a­tion that 105 dif­fer­ent out­fits were col­lect­ing and pre­sum­ably selling data about me on the In­ter­net gives me pause. It’s not just Google or Face­book or Ya­hoo. There are lit­er­ally dozens and dozens of these com­pan­ies and the av­er­age user has no idea what they do or how they work. We just know that for some reas­on, at one point or an­oth­er, an or­gan­iz­a­tion dropped a cook­ie on us and have cre­ated a file on some serv­er, stead­ily ac­cu­mu­lat­ing clicks and habits that will even­tu­ally be mined and mar­keted.

The on­line ad­vert­ising in­dustry ar­gues that tech­no­logy is chan­ging so rap­idly that reg­u­la­tion is not the an­swer to my queas­i­ness about all that data go­ing off to who-knows-where. The prob­lem, however, is that the in­dustry’s ver­sion of self-reg­u­la­tion is not one that most people would ex­pect or agree with, as I found out my­self.

After run­ning Col­lu­sion for a few days, I wanted to see if there was an easy meth­od to stop data col­lec­tion. Na­ively, I went to the self-reg­u­lat­ory site run by the Net­work Ad­vert­ising Ini­ti­at­ive and com­pleted their “Opt Out” form. I did so for the dozens of com­pan­ies lis­ted and I would say that it was a simple and nom­in­ally ef­fect­ive pro­cess. That said, I wasn’t sure if data would stop be­ing col­lec­ted on me or not. The site it­self does not say that data col­lec­tion will stop, but it’s also not clear that data col­lec­tion will con­tin­ue. In fact, the over­view of NAI’s prin­ciples freely mixes talk about how the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s code “lim­its the types of data that mem­ber com­pan­ies can use” with in­form­a­tion about the opt-out pro­cess.

After opt­ing out, I went back to Col­lu­sion to see if com­pan­ies were still track­ing me. I found that many, many com­pan­ies ap­peared to be log­ging data for me. Ac­cord­ing to Moz­illa, the cur­rent ver­sion of Col­lu­sion does not al­low me to see pre­cisely what com­pan­ies are still track­ing, but Stan­ford re­search­ers us­ing Col­lu­sion found that at least some com­pan­ies con­tin­ue to col­lect data. All that I had “op­ted out” of was re­ceiv­ing tar­geted ads, not data col­lec­tion. There is no way, through the com­pan­ies’ own self-reg­u­lat­ory ap­par­at­us, to stop be­ing tracked on­line. None.

After those Stan­ford re­search­ers pos­ted their res­ults to a uni­versity blog, they re­ceived a sharp re­sponse from the NAI’s then-chief, Chuck Cur­ran.

In es­sence, Cur­ran ar­gued that users do not have the right to not be tracked. “We’ve long re­cog­nized that con­sumers should be provided a choice about wheth­er data about their likely in­terests can be used to make their ads more rel­ev­ant,” he wrote. “But the NAI code also re­cog­nizes that com­pan­ies some­times need to con­tin­ue to col­lect data for op­er­a­tion­al reas­ons that are sep­ar­ate from ad tar­get­ing based on a user’s on­line be­ha­vi­or.”

Com­pan­ies “need to con­tin­ue to col­lect data,” but that con­trasts dir­ectly with users de­sire “not to be tracked.” The only right that on­line ad­vert­isers are will­ing to give users is the abil­ity not to have ads served to them based on their web his­tor­ies. Cur­ran him­self ad­mits this: “There is a vi­tal dis­tinc­tion between lim­it­ing the use of on­line data for ad tar­get­ing, and ban­ning data col­lec­tion out­right.”

But based on the scant sur­vey and an­ec­dot­al data that we have avail­able, when users opt out, pre­vent­ing data col­lec­tion is pre­cisely what they are after.

In pre­lim­in­ary res­ults from a sur­vey con­duc­ted last year, Alee­cia Mc­Don­ald, a fel­low at Stan­ford Cen­ter for In­ter­net and So­ci­ety, found that users ex­pec­ted a lot more from the cur­rent set of tools than those tools de­liv­er. The largest per­cent­age of her sur­vey group (34 per­cent) who looked at the NAI’s opt-out page thought that it was “a web­site that lets you tell com­pan­ies not to col­lect data about you.” For browser-based “Do Not Track” tools, a full 61 per­cent of re­spond­ents ex­pec­ted that if they clicked such a but­ton, no data would be col­lec­ted about them.

Do Not Track tools have be­come a ma­jor point of con­ten­tion. The idea is that if you en­able one in your browser, when you ar­rive at The New York Times, you send a her­ald out ahead of you that says, “Do not col­lect data about me.” Mem­bers of the NAI have agreed, in prin­ciple, to fol­low the “Do Not Track” pro­vi­sions, but now the de­bate has shif­ted to the de­tails.

There is a fas­cin­at­ing scrum over what DNT tools should do and what or­ders web­sites will have to re­spect from users. The Di­git­al Ad­vert­ising Al­li­ance (of which the NAI is a part), the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion, W3C, the In­ter­net Ad­vert­ising Bur­eau (also part of the DAA), and pri­vacy re­search­ers at aca­dem­ic in­sti­tu­tions are all in­volved. In Novem­ber, the DAA put out a new set of prin­ciples that con­tain some good ideas like the pro­hib­i­tion of “col­lec­tion, use or trans­fer of In­ter­net surf­ing data across Web­sites for de­term­in­a­tion of a con­sumer’s eli­gib­il­ity for em­ploy­ment, cred­it stand­ing, health­care treat­ment and in­sur­ance.”

This week, the White House seemed to side with pri­vacy ad­voc­ates who want to lim­it col­lec­tion, not just uses. Its Con­sumer Pri­vacy Bill of Rights pushes com­pan­ies to al­low users to “ex­er­cise con­trol over what per­son­al data com­pan­ies col­lect from them and how they use it.” The DAA her­al­ded its own par­ti­cip­a­tion in the White House pro­cess, though even it noted this is the be­gin­ning of a long jour­ney.

There has been a clear and real philo­soph­ic­al dif­fer­ence between the ad­vert­isers and reg­u­lat­ors rep­res­ent­ing Web users. On the one hand, as Stan­ford pri­vacy re­search­er Jonath­an May­er put it, “Many stake­hold­ers on on­line pri­vacy, in­clud­ing U.S. and E.U. reg­u­lat­ors, have re­peatedly em­phas­ized that ef­fect­ive con­sumer con­trol ne­ces­sit­ates re­stric­tions on the col­lec­tion of in­form­a­tion, not just pro­hib­i­tions on spe­cif­ic uses of in­form­a­tion.” But ad­vert­isers want to keep col­lect­ing as much data as they can as long as they prom­ise to not to use it to tar­get ad­vert­ising. That’s why the NAI opt-out pro­gram works like it does.

Let’s not linger too long on the tech­nic­al im­ple­ment­a­tion here: There may be some top­ics around which com­prom­ises can be found. Some defin­i­tion of “Do Not Track” that suits in­dustry and pri­vacy people may be craf­ted. Vari­ous is­sues re­lated to dif­fer­ences between first- and third-party cook­ies may be re­solved. But the battle over data col­lec­tion and ad tar­get­ing goes much deep­er than the tac­tic­al, tech­nic­al is­sues that dom­in­ate the dis­cus­sion

Let’s as­sume good faith on be­half of ad­vert­ising com­pan­ies and con­front the core is­sue head-on: Should users be able to stop data col­lec­tion, even if com­pan­ies aren’t do­ing any­thing “bad” with it? Should that be a right, as the White House con­tends, and more im­port­antly, why?

***

Com­pan­ies’ abil­ity to track people on­line has sig­ni­fic­antly out­paced the cul­tur­al norms and ex­pect­a­tions of pri­vacy. This is not be­cause on­line com­pan­ies are worse than their off­line coun­ter­parts, but rather be­cause what they can do is so, so dif­fer­ent. We don’t have a lan­guage for talk­ing about how these com­pan­ies func­tion or how our so­ci­ety should deal with them.

The word you hear over and over and over is that tar­geted ads can be “creepy.” It even crops up in the aca­dem­ic lit­er­at­ure, des­pite its vague mean­ing in this con­text. My in­tu­ition is that we use the word “creepy” pre­cisely be­cause it is an in­de­term­in­ate word. It con­notes that tingling-back-of-the-neck feel­ing, but not ne­ces­sar­ily more than that. The creepy feel­ing is a sign to pay at­ten­tion to a pos­sibly harm­ful phe­nomen­on. But we can’t sort our feel­ings in­to cat­egor­ies — dan­ger­ous or harm­less — be­cause we don’t ac­tu­ally know what’s go­ing to hap­pen with all the data that’s be­ing col­lec­ted.

Not only are there more than 100 com­pan­ies that are col­lect­ing data on us, mak­ing it prac­tic­ally im­possible to sort good from bad, but there are key un­re­solved is­sues about how we re­late to our di­git­al selves and the ma­chines through which they are ex­pressed.

At the heart of the prob­lem is that we in­creas­ingly live two lives: a phys­ic­al one in which your name, So­cial Se­cur­ity num­ber, pass­port num­ber, and driver’s li­cense are your main iden­tity mark­ers, and one di­git­al, in which you have dozens of iden­tity mark­ers, which are known to you and me as cook­ies. These mark­ers al­low data gather­ers to keep tabs on you without your name. Those cook­ie num­bers, which are known only to the en­tit­ies that as­signed them to you, are per­sist­ent mark­ers of who you are, but they re­main un­at­tached to your phys­ic­al iden­tity through your name. There is a (thin) wall between the self that buys health in­sur­ance and the self that searches for health-re­lated in­form­a­tion on­line.

For real-time ad­vert­ising bid­ding, in which audi­ences are be­ing served ads that were pur­chased mil­li­seconds after users ar­rive at a Web page, ad ser­vices “match cook­ies,” so that both sides know who a user is. While that in­form­a­tion may not be stored by both com­pan­ies, i.e. it’s not ad­ded to a user’s per­sist­ent file, it means that the walls between on­line data selves are fall­ing away quickly. Every­one can know who you are, even if they call you by a dif­fer­ent num­ber.

Fur­ther­more, many com­pan­ies are just out there col­lect­ing data to sell to oth­er com­pan­ies. Any­one can com­bine mul­tiple data­bases to­geth­er in­to a fully fleshed out di­git­al por­trait. As a Wall Street Journ­al in­vest­ig­a­tion put it, data com­pan­ies are “trans­form­ing the In­ter­net in­to a place where people are be­com­ing an­onym­ous in name only.” Joe Tur­ow, who re­cently pub­lished a book on on­line pri­vacy, had even stronger words:

If a com­pany can fol­low your be­ha­vi­or in the di­git­al en­vir­on­ment — an en­vir­on­ment that po­ten­tially in­cludes your mo­bile phone and tele­vi­sion set — its claim that you are “an­onym­ous” is mean­ing­less. That is par­tic­u­larly true when firms in­ter­mit­tently add off-line in­form­a­tion such as shop­ping pat­terns and the value of your house to their on­line data and then simply strip the name and ad­dress to make it “an­onym­ous.” It mat­ters little if your name is John Smith, Yesh Mis­par, or 3211466. The per­sist­ence of in­form­a­tion about you will lead firms to act based on what they know, share, and care about you, wheth­er you know it is hap­pen­ing or not.

Mil­it­at­ing against this col­lapse of pri­vacy is a pro­tec­tion em­bed­ded in the very nature of the on­line ad­vert­ising sys­tem. No per­son could ever ac­tu­ally look over the world’s Web tracks. It would be too ex­pens­ive and even if you had all the hu­man laborers in the world, they couldn’t do the math fast enough to con­stantly re­cal­cu­late Web surfers’ value to ad­vert­isers. So, ma­chines are the ones that do all of the work.

When new tech­no­lo­gies come up against our ex­pect­a­tions of pri­vacy, I think it’s help­ful to make a real-world ana­logy. But we just do not have an ad­equate un­der­stand­ing of an­onym­ity in a world where ma­chines can parse all of our be­ha­vi­or without hu­man over­sight. Most ob­vi­ously, with the ma­chine, you have more pri­vacy than if a per­son were watch­ing your click­streams, pick­ing up col­lat­er­al know­ledge. A hu­man could eas­ily ap­ply ana­lyt­ic­al reas­on­ing skills to fig­ure out who you were. And any hu­man could use this data for un­au­thor­ized pur­poses. With our data-driv­en ad­vert­ising world, we are re­ly­ing on ma­chines’ cur­rent dumb­ness and in­ab­il­ity to “know too much.”

This is a double-edged sword. The cur­rent levels of ma­chine in­tel­li­gence in­su­late us from pri­vacy cata­strophe, so we let data be col­lec­ted about us. But we know that this data is not go­ing away and yet ma­chine in­tel­li­gence is grow­ing rap­idly. The res­ults of this pro­cess are in­eluct­able. Left to their own devices, ad track­ing firms will even­tu­ally be able to con­nect your vari­ous data selves. And then they will break down the name wall, if they are al­lowed to.

***

Your vis­it to this story prob­ably gen­er­ated data for 13 com­pan­ies through our web­site. The great down­side to this beau­ti­ful, free Web that we have is that you have to sell your di­git­al self in or­der to ac­cess it. If you’d like to stop data col­lec­tion, take a look at Do Not Track Plus. It goes bey­ond Col­lu­sion and browser based con­trols in block­ing data col­lec­tion out­right.

But I am ul­ti­mately un­clear what I think about us­ing these tools. Rhet­or­ic­ally, they im­ply that there will be tech­no­lo­gic­al solu­tions to these data col­lec­tion prob­lems. Un­doubtedly, tech elites will use them. The prob­lem is the vast ma­jor­ity of In­ter­net users will nev­er know what’s churn­ing be­neath their browsers. And the ad­vert­ising lobby is ex­pli­citly op­posed to set­ting browser de­faults for high­er levels of “Do Not Track” pri­vacy. There will be noth­ing to pro­tect them from un­wit­tingly giv­ing away vast amounts of data about who they are. 

On the oth­er hand, these are the tools that al­low web­sites to eke out a tiny bit more money than they oth­er­wise would. I am all too aware of how dif­fi­cult it is for me­dia busi­nesses to sur­vive in this new en­vir­on­ment. Sure, we could all throw up pay­walls and try to make a lot more money from a lot few­er read­ers. But that would des­troy what makes the web the unique re­source in hu­man his­tory that it is. I want to keep the In­ter­net healthy, which really does mean keep­ing money flow­ing from ad­vert­ising.

I wish there were more ob­vi­ous vil­lains in this story. The sav­ing grace may end up be­ing that as com­pan­ies go to more ob­trus­ive and high­er pro­duc­tion value ads, tar­get­ing may be­come in­ef­fect­ive. Avi Gold­farb of Rot­man School of Man­age­ment and Cath­er­ine Tuck­er of MIT’s Sloan School found last year that the big, ob­trus­ive ads that mar­keters love do not work bet­ter with tar­get­ing, but worse.

“Ads that match both web­site con­tent and are ob­trus­ive do worse at in­creas­ing pur­chase in­tent than ads that do only one or the oth­er,” they wrote in a 2011 Mar­ket­ing Sci­ence journ­al pa­per. “This fail­ure ap­pears to be re­lated to pri­vacy con­cerns: The neg­at­ive ef­fect of com­bin­ing tar­get­ing with ob­trus­ive­ness is strongest for people who re­fuse to give their in­come and for cat­egor­ies where pri­vacy mat­ters most.”

Per­haps there are nat­ur­al lim­its to what data tar­get­ing can do for ad­vert­isers and when we look back in 10 years at why data col­lec­tion prac­tices changed, it will not be be­cause of reg­u­la­tion or self-reg­u­la­tion or a user up­ris­ing. No, it will be be­cause the best ads could not be tar­geted. It will be be­cause the whole idea did not work and the best minds of the next gen­er­a­tion will turn their at­ten­tion to something else.

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