Could We See a Drop in the Attacks on Our Online Privacy?

A digital “great awakening” has occurred with unprecedented global attention given to the commercial surveillance business model at the core of our collective digital experience.


Since the earliest days of the commercial Internet in the 1990s, the online medium has been deliberately shaped to primarily serve the interests of marketing. Advertisers have poured in many billions of dollars since then to make sure that our platforms, applications and devices all serve the primary need of gathering our information so it could be used for data-driven marketing. Internet industry trade groups have developed the technical standards so that data collection is embedded in new services—such as mobile geo-location applications. Marketers developed new technologies, such as programmatic advertising, that enabled lightning-fast decisions about individuals based on their data. Leading ad platforms, especially Google and Facebook, fought against privacy legislation for the U.S. Policymakers from both major parties protected them from regulation, including on privacy and antitrust. U.S. companies tried to derail the new EU privacy law that starts on May 24—known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—but failed to stop it. Europeans—who understand the threat to personal and political freedom when unaccountable institutions control our information—are now on the privacy front lines. The road to privacy and digital rights for America is likely first to pass through the European Union.

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal (and kudos to The Observer newspaper for its dogged journalism on all this) is, however, not unique. It is emblematic of the way that digital marketing works every day—all over the world. Huge amounts of our information is scooped up, from scores of sources, quickly analyzed, and used to send us more personalized marketing and content. Powerful automated applications help marketers identify who we and then engage us at deeper emotional and subconscious levels. Facebook, Google and others are continually pushing the boundaries of digital advertising, deploying Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Neuromarketing and other techniques. They are laying the foundation for the “Internet of Things” world that will be soon upon us, where we will be further tracked and targeted wherever we go and whatever we do.

But it’s the global “Fortune” type companies that will really decide what happens with the online privacy of people all over the world. Google and Facebook basically work for the P&Gs, Coca-Cola’s, Honda’s and Bank America’s—the leading advertisers. It’s the advertisers who are really in charge of the Internet, and they have created for their own companies a kind of mirror image to what Google and Facebook have helped unleash. Fortune-size companies are now also in the data business, collecting information on consumers via all their devices; they have created in-house consumer data mining and targeting services; and they deploy advanced digital marketing techniques to directly reach us. Over the last year, major advertisers have forced Facebook and Google to become more accountable to their needs and interests—rather than to the public interest. What they call the need for “brand safety” online—assurances their ads are not undermined by being placed to hate speech or other content harmful to their brands—is really about seizing greater control over their own digital futures. They deeply dislike the clout that both Google and Facebook have today over the digital advertising system.

We are at a critical moment in the brief history of the Internet and digital media. There is greater awareness of what is at stake—including the future of the democratic electoral process—if we don’t develop the regulations and policies that ensure privacy, promote individual autonomy, and place limits on the now-unchecked corporate power of digital marketers. It’s time to expand the focus of the debate about Facebook and Google to include those who have been paying for all of this consumer surveillance—namely advertisers and the advertising industry. They need to be held accountable if we are to see a global digital medium that puts people—not profits—first.

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