Paying With Yourself

How the Web Is Looking Back at You

You may spend hours a day trolling through the Internet, but you might not know that it’s looking right back at you.

Gone are the days of easy anonymous surfing. Now, it’s not uncommon for websites to automatically know where you’ve been, where you’re going, where you are and some of the most intimate details of your life.

When a site’s audience can span the globe and meet a tiny cross-section of interests, market research becomes a task of sifting through mountains of data bigger than ever before.

Because small sites need to generate enough revenue with the expectation that you won’t have to pass through a paywall, they have gone into the data business. It’s not the Wild West anymore; there are systems in place to learn about your audience and how to interact with them.

Behavioural advertising is the most explicit form of this right now, a practice including “demographically targeted, location, behavioral/interspace, interest-based advertising” as defined by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

In short, the ads learn more about you so they can show you more relevant ads, increasing the value of the online ad business. The biggest example is Google Ad Choices, which scans for content to match with ads.
It brings producer and consumer together; anyone with an Internet connection is able to be part of the market.

And then, when placed in this model, the customer is transformed into the product. Detailed information of our lives is sold in the aggregate in a growing business. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, online ads in the U.S. earned over $8 billion in the first quarter of this year alone.

Should we have a problem with this? While the user data business may be the answer for a sustainable online business model, it hands over an awful lot of what you do online to advertisers.

The argument du jour is of user consent. In Europe, legislation has been implemented for sites to explicitly tell the user that third-party cookies will be tracking them. However, the World Wide Web Consortium, the international standards body for the web, has yet to come to a consensus on if the user has the right not to be tracked.

The browser tool “Do Not Track” spurred this discussion, first offered by Firefox developers Mozilla in 2011. The option sends a signal out to websites saying that they do not want to have their online actions read.

There is, however, no legally binding action made here. The site can choose to ignore the signal, or if it isn’t coded to read “Do Not Track,” then the option does nothing.

The ad companies have instead packaged us as the products. With increasingly specific, rich market research, your Google queries and what you read, watch and listen to tell advertisers what they should try and sell to you. They know more about you as they get better at doing it.

South of the border, the Federal Trade Commission and the Digital Advertising Alliance, an association that represents the largest ad companies such as the Google and Yahoo ad networks, have come to an agreement that’s more than a little vague.

The consumer must be provided “language that describes to consumers the effect of exercising such choice including that some data may still be collected,” and the user must explicitly make the decision themselves. The sites don’t stop tracking you; but the data they collect can’t be used for ads.

While this thought may conjure images of a Big Brother looking over your shoulder, there hasn’t been any action by a major data holder to “be evil,” as Google famously puts it. This data is valuable as long as it’s
not freely accessible, so Google et al. have a business interest in keeping it secure. But hacks happen, and even if an anonymous number is attached to your data, your social media pages give away your identity pretty fast.

The web looking back sets a new precedent for how much control over our privacy we have online, and the ad business is moving fast to keep up with the growth and pervasiveness of the Internet.

Google is working to move away from click-based advertising, to what they’re calling “impressions” based. The idea is to know not only what pages you’re visiting, but what you’re reading on the page.

An increased knowledge of what the user is reading on the page can make the ads even more specific, enabling higher prices for behavioural advertising.

It comes down to how we, as consumers, want to pay for accessing online content. While some larger media sites have (or are planning to) erect paywalls, that method can’t be the same for small sites with less traffic; the user will just go elsewhere.

So the ad companies have instead packaged us as the products. With increasingly specific, rich market research, your Google queries and what you read, watch and listen to tell advertisers what they should try and sell to you. They know more about you as they get better at doing it.

There are some very real concerns about the rate at which these tracking practices are growing especially when the average user is oblivious to them. But as companies fight to find a way to turn profits in a web-first democracy, something’s got to give.

From paywalls, to banner ads, to data mining, companies will try anything to stay afloat. What survives as the most salient product will redefine our economy.

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