As compelling as this Apple ad is, Peeping Tom’s story fails to capture the collective dimension of data privacy. The truth, like tech analyst Ben Thompson points outis that the companies that follow our every move, or try to do so, usually don’t care about us as individuals. The data they collect is aggregated, passed to machine learning algorithms, and used to target advertisements to us based on our behavior. No human being snoops around in your laundry, just a machine trying to sell you more stuff. “The reason their businesses are possible is precisely because they don’t know who I am and don’t need it,” Thompson writes. “And yet they can sell me exactly what I want anyway.”
Just because the companies collecting your data don’t care about you doesn’t mean you stop worrying about it, I’m afraid. It’s just that the reasons to care aren’t limited to the degree to which you are personally being spied on. Think about the journalism industry. For most of modern history, the best way for advertisers to reach their target audience was to buy advertising where that audience was most likely to watch, read, or listen to something. If you want to sell baseball cards, you can place ads in Illustrated sports. Today, advertisers can reach the same sports enthusiasts wherever they are online; instead of paying SI.com to serve the ad directly, they can pay Google to target the ad to people who love sports where they can be reached the cheapest.
There is quite a bit of research questioning the effectiveness of this behavioral microtargeting. But this is how marketers choose to spend a large chunk of their digital advertising budgets. The result is that the money that was once intended for journalistic publications is diverted not only to social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, but also also to substandard sites and apps, including bigotry and disinformation providers. Conspiratorial trash merchants like the Gateway Pundit would find it difficult to exist without an automated, user-targeting advertising system that does not force advertisers to consciously choose to spend money on it. You don’t have to be totally biased in favor of the journalism industry, as I am, to be bothered by a business model that uses your personal data to jeopardize its financial viability. You just have to accept that journalism is necessary for democratic autonomy.
The behavioral tracking advertising model also shapes social media and social media incentives. The reason Facebook and YouTube are so keen on keeping users “engaged” is that the more time you spend on their platforms, the more they are able to profile you and the more ads they can show you. This powerful bias towards maximizing engagement, in turn, helps explain why platforms are constantly taken to steer users toward provocative and even radicalizing content. The Wall Street Journal reported last year, for example, that Facebook employees warned their bosses, “Our algorithms harness the human brain’s attraction to division” – but their proposals for reducing polarization, at a cost for engagement, have been blocked or watered down.
An individual refusing to be tracked and targeted does not solve any of these problems. Twitter and Instagram will still try to scroll you even if you turn off personalized ads; the information business will continue to struggle; fraudulent ads will continue to support bottom-feed websites. Because the most serious consequences of the data-driven economy are collective, your individual choices about your own data have marginal impact at best.
Peeping Tom’s theory also does not take into account situations where the problem could be described as too much privacy. Last year, Congressman David Cicilline (D – Rhode Island) introduced a bill that would have banned the targeting of political ads based on anything other than age, gender, or zip code. The goal was to ensure that if any false or misleading political ads were shown on social media, at least they should be shown to a wide audience so that people could refute them. Micro-targeting of political ads is particularly troublesome because, as Cicillin told me at the time, “it is about the ability of people to get reliable and reliable information to make decisions in an election, which is. the cornerstone of our democracy. But the principle can be generalized. The logic of targeted behavioral advertising is inexorably pushing towards ever more personalization and segmentation. In a sense, this means satisfying an ever-increasing diversity of consumer choices. Seen in another way, it means replacing collective experiences, shared between citizens, with private transactions between the company and the individual. In this sense, what is at stake when we talk about online privacy is the continued existence of Public life.