OBA, the Stalker Effect and the Power Shift in Online Advertising
As the practitioners of online behavioral advertising (OBA) become better at data mining the identities and browsing habits of end-users of the Internet, these users have become unsettled at the lack of online privacy. This phenomenon, which I have dubbed the “stalker effect,” has led to numerous virtual protests against Google and Microsoft, two of the world’s largest technology companies, for selling the personal data of their users to advertising agencies. The demand for privacy has become such a heated topic that it has been successfully turned into a competitive edge, with tech executives often seeking to undermine their opposition with claims that they abuse user privacy agreements and sell data to marketing and advertising firms.
Sableman, Schoenberger and Thorson (2013) concluded that this “stalker effect” can largely be chalked up to the fact that users find OBA applications to have a beneficial effect with regards to the usefulness and tastefulness of advertising, but that internet browsers don’t want to acknowledge that their data is getting actively privatized in doing so. They find that:
…first person OBA has generally been viewed as acceptable…[but] Third party online behavioral advertising…takes behavioral advertising to the next step [and]…has been the focus of regulatory and Congressional attention since late 2008.
The work of Sableman et al. went over dozens of studies regarding user opinions on targeted advertising, and came to the conclusion that there is a slight majority of people who are in favor of targeted advertising, but that there is a significant majority of individuals who are in favor of targeted discounts.
This suggests that the privacy debate is not a matter of principle, but rather a very economic matter, where users are weighing the utility they get from targeted advertising with the perceived discomfort they feel from having their privacy infringed upon.
It also appears that users have an incorrect idea of what data advertisers are actually capable of using. In a study done by Ur, Leon, Cranor et al., it was found that:
…the majority of participants believed that advertisers could access personally identifiable information. Furthermore, participants were surprised that OBA occurs; while a number of participants believed that browsing history could theoretically be used to target advertising, few were aware that this technique is currently used (Ur et al. 1).
The presence of misinformation regarding an already volatile subject is, arguably, a major reason for the overuse of adblockers, which then starts a vicious cycle where advertisers seek more aggressive ways of seizing proprietary information and turning it into advertising. Given the power that users now have to disable advertisements from their browsing experience, firms are being forced to find a middle ground between their revenue hungry methods of advertising and the demands of their target audience.