For anyone who’s followed the development of the Internet over the years, this is an old story. As Joseph Turrow notes in his new book “The Daily You,” as early as 1995, Internet companies were hiring data firms to analyze their users — who they were, where they were coming from, what they were doing on the site and how long they stuck around. That data makes the web go. The more of it companies like Google gobble up about you, the more useful Google is to you as well as to advertisers.
Because monitoring happens almost entirely behind the scenes, we rarely think about it. Pulling back the curtain is seeing a blown-up image of the dust mites that cover everything in your house — a little unsettling. Using a free Mozilla plug-in called Collusion, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal recently offered a useful window into that typically invisible process. Over a 36-hour period of normal web surfing, he counted 105 companies that were tracking him, mostly through cookies and beacons, files that allow websites to keep track of users’ browsing habits. Some of the companies Madrigal found were familiar names — Google, Microsoft — but most, he said, were smaller companies with names like Audience Science. Together, they represent a dizzying array of outfits that are trying, in one way or another, to more successfully sell you things. Some track our web movements so they can create detailed consumer profiles to sell to other marketers. Others target ads based on users’ behavioral, demographic or geographic information.
The large majority of the companies tracking you, including Google, promise that the data they collect is anonymized, meaning your name is not attached to it. As many privacy experts have pointed out, however, it’s not difficult to connect detailed, anonymized data with detailed personal data (maybe Acxiom would be willing to help). Many of the data miners, increasingly, offer a “do not track option.” In the wake of the Obama administration’s recently unveiled Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, major browsers have also promised to implement “do not track” technology into their products. Still, as many experts have pointed out, the only way to truly escape the long reach of marketers is to go offline completely.
Beyond being creepy, the social consequences of highly detailed profiling is largely theoretical at this point. A pragmatist might argue that whatever privacy we’re ceding is a reasonable exchange for a largely free Internet. Turrow worries about discrimination in situations where advertisers supply discounts to people based on their marketing profile and none to others. I’m worried about the power online marketers are accruing and how they might leverage it on publishers. Of, say, journalism. Increasingly, as Turrow details in “The Daily You,” marketers are pushing publishers to provide targeted content to users to enhance the value of their ads. When, according to a recent Pew Study, for every $7 newspapers lose in print ad revenue only $1 of digital ad revenue is gained, it’s not hard to imagine marketers putting the screws to publishers. If you ever visit the Arkansas Times and find an article on exfoliating tips next to ad for skin care and you have aging or otherwise imperfect skin, you’ll know the end is near.