The feeble belly of internet
Lately, digital activist, American scholar and journalist Ethan Zuckerman complained about his past as supporter of what he defines the “Internet’ s original sin”, namely exploitation of advertising as business model to start and manage online services.
Although he had many fellows, the present director of MIT Center for Civic Media has a point to blame himself. In 1995 Zuckerman worked and implemented the so hated ad pop-ups, those web pages full of advertising messages that, during our browsing, suddenly occupy all our vision entrapping us nervously while we make vain tentatives to move on.
However, Zuckerman’s mea culpa does not accuse advertising communication rather its use as primary revenue source for the most popular online services that, inevitably, implies user surveillance.
On the other hand, advertising was a easy driver for internet start-ups to justify their business plans.
However, given the increasing competition to catch user attention and the decline of value of visual impressions, online advertising is much more appreciated when consumers are effectively targeted. Yet, surveillance is not only for ads targeting.
First of all, online ads need to be controlled to avoid abuses as click-fraud (generation of impressions by people, automated script or computer program imitate a legitimate user) or click bait (attracting click-throughs with content has nothing to do with the specific advertising).
Moreover, advertising looks for centralization in order to have great audiences, whereby ad-supported industries tend to acquire or merge competitors, increasing concentration but even limiting chances to have alternative business model for online services.
Other collateral aspects involving ad-supported services regard bias effects produced by content based on personal customization. The amplification of autoreferentiality weakens the set of common knowledge jeopardizing the indispensable basis for advantageous general debates.
Advertising in medium
To be clear, Zuckerman’s thesis does not consider some important aspects on the history of media. It’s naive to think of new medium as immune from commercial interests. They shaped the life of many of them, starting from that ante-litteram internet, the telegraph and with radio and television advertising became the true “king of content”.
It would be very difficult to create a protective barrier for a medium having so many possibilities, from broadcasting to narrowcasting, immunizing it from the real life of consumptions and personal desires, not considering the capacity to harmonize/coordinate/lead unequivocally the battle for a such preservation at global level.
Moreover, marketing and advertising had and have a relevant role for internet innovation, producing enormous and collective benefits otherwise unimaginable. Indeed, we can blame the vicious circle of free, but it would be very hard and even ungenerous to hide its virtues in front of the marvelous things it opens up.
On the other side, warnings about increasing surveillance to which people are submitted when interconnected, that with wireless device triumph means always, are right and well-justified.
There is no single “right answer” to the question of how we pay for the tool that lets us share knowledge, opinions, ideas, and photos of cute cats. Whether we embrace micropayments, membership, crowdfunding, or any other model, there are bound to be unintended consequences. But 20 years in to the ad-supported web, we can see that our current model is bad, broken, and corrosive. It’s time to start paying for privacy, to support services we love, and to abandon those that are free, but sell us — the users and our attention — as the product (Zuckerman, 2014).
Indeed, although marketing and advertising revenues are a small part of the entire ICT value chain, every day we learn how new ways have been implemented to gather consumers’ information by some kind of ICT companies.
For instance, although American mobile company Verizon started its initiative two years ago, only now the most Verizon customers have known that their data traffic is labelled in order to sell their data information to web operators.
There is no clear information about terms and conditions to accept the program (opt-in/opt-out). Further, service implementation show several critical aspects.
Unlike other tracking technics built in the wake of web architecture, the new user identification (UID) is implemented by deep packet inspection technology managed exclusively by Verizon, the supposed “neutral” carrier of data traffic. To say, end-user can’t delete or disable his/her privacy information, operations normally supported by browsers.
Moreover, and there was no needs at all, once inserted UIDs mark data traffic unequivocally, making it easily distinguishable by any network middle man.
Verizon allows people to “opt-out” of the system, meaning the telco won’t allow advertisers to directly request and analyze your online wanderings, but the setting is mostly useless: every single HTTP request via its network is stamped with a UIDH regardless of the opt-out, and is thus visible to any web server one visits.
Now it appears that ad networks are using the UIDHs to monitor internet users without all that tiresome business of actually paying Verizon for the privilege, and since the system is baked in by the company there’s very little people can do to stop them (The Register, 2014).
In the meantime, Verizon solution likes so much that also AT&T was moving to implement it (Forbes, 2014). Except that, after discussions about these disputable practices, as well as suggestions to protect customer traffic with alternative ways as wi-fi access or VPN (Virtual Private Network) encryptions, AT&T claims it was only an experimentation already finished (Propublica, 2014).
The economic value of personal data
Considering the issue prospectively, namely including data uploading from heterogeneous (wearable, health, home, automotive) networked devices and the inevitable free-riding behaviours, it would be convenient to focus on the economic value of personal data.
Online users as legitimate owners should pretend an economic return given the recent evaluations about personal data value considered, on annual base, from 77 to 140 euros. The proposal should aim to prompt user awareness, but also to establish some kind of control on personal data helping to set some sort of interface between online users and data brokers in order to manage terms and conditions of service.
Yet, as in every good investigation, clues on money can bring further lights on this issue. Indeed, the continuous handling of personal data and its plots among security and marketing needs starts to annoy citizens and, consequently, some authorities dedicated to protect their rights.
On the other hand, even people used to love the benefits of online environments, and more inclined to close their eyes in front of uses/abuses of personal information, should wince about statements released by Frank Pasquale, law professor and New York Times editorialist.
In a recent article, he describes the drifts in which 4.000 brokers of personal data are starting to bring us, for instance implementing offers of lists of people categorized for every kind of aspects such as opinions, health, credit, behaviour, etc. Non considering the quality of accuracy, they are putting us in the hand of every possible counterpart, in a preventive way and for reasons that, if not for few cases, result at moment unimaginable — it could be worth to think how many preventive and undiscoverable discriminations we could suffer …
For instance, whether possible applications are already disturbing thinking of a such Google Glass user that could perform a preventive screening analysis during an occasional meeting, this event could be more dangerous if it happens based on false or even misunderstood information.
Actually, we continually produce digital footprints, actively and passively, data and information that are possibly memorized, sorted and analyzed for some kind of purpose. In front of a such worries and even political initiatives, the techno-commercial apparatus behind personal data business started to explain the enormous interests behind the sector.
Indeed, if advertising has a fractional value related to the entire ICT value chain, consumer personal information have a central role for marketing. In order to explain their tactical and strategic roles to US Congress, American Direct Marketing Association (DMA) recently showed how gathering and handling of personal information— both in personal and pseudonymised form — help the planning, communication and delivery of goods and services, drawing closer production and consumption needs.
Moreover, they explained how activities involving personal data handling engage many people (almost 700.000 in 2012) organized in complex chains, creating big add value for economics – in USA, 156 billions dollars. The value of the so-called Data-Drive Marketing Economy is, in fact, almost 50% of all marketing activities. In DDME off-line traditional activities count for 75%, including the legacy and well-established commercial actions through direct or postal channels, strategic marketing, etc. At moment, online data count only for 25%, but there will be a rapid inversion of proportions because of their quality in terms of targeting and timing, that consents online environments and technologies both to interweave relationships/conversations and finalize contacts – as we tried to explain in a previous article.
By the way, the articulated advertising programmatic architectures are already ready to manage this kind of intersection through their gateway points using Data Management Platforms (DMP).
In conclusion, given the many implications, there would be many variables to insert in an hypothetical equation capable to figure out the rules that can (re)establish a kind of balance among the needs of marketing and privacy. An aim that should be actively supported in order to demine internet from the dangerous drifts that many of its present and future co-actors want to undertake.
“AT&T Stops Using Undeletable Phone Tracking IDs“, Propublica.org, 11/14.
Deighton, J., Johnson, P. A., 2013, The Value of Data: Consequences for Insight, Innovation & Efficiency in the U.S. Economy.
Eagle, N., 2014, “Mine Your Digital Business”,10/9.
“EFF: VPNs will crumble Verizon’s creepy supercookie stalkers”, The Register, 11/6/2014.
Loudhouse/Orange, 2014, The future of digital trust. A European study on the nature of consumer trust and personal data.
Paquale, F., 2014, The Dark Market for Personal Data, New York Times, 10/16.
“The Privacy Lowdown On Smartphone ‘Permacookies’ That Make You Trackable On The Web“, Forbes, 10/29/2014.
Zuckerman, N., “The Internet’s Original Sin”, The Atlantic, 08/14/2014.