An interesting lengthy article in Wired, “Why don’t we just ban targeted advertising?”, proposes a radical solution, but one that makes sense by attacking the problem from the bottom up: the ban wouldn’t restrict social networks’ business model — which would continue to sell access to their traffic for unsegmented advertising — or the ability of companies like Netflix or Amazon to recommend their products based on our previous purchases, but it would stop the sale of our data to third parties to follow us with their advertising.
Ending the sale of personal data could solve in one fell swoop many of the more harmful aspects of the Internet today: being swamped with ads for hotels in Rome after a search for places to stay in the Italian capital, the paranoia of those who believe that their devices are listening in to their phone calls because ads for dog food suddenly appear after a conversation talking about their mutt, the possibility of electoral or other types of manipulation, or the madness of downloading more bits in cookies designed to spy on us than those in the content itself.
Is it right that information about my interests, the news I read, the things I say I like or the contents of what I write are automatically collected by an army of mercenaries that will use them to improve the probability of me clicking on an advertisement? Furthermore, does it make sense if, as the vast majority of studies prove, they do it so badly that the result ends up being more of a nuisance than a benefit? We are talking, surely, about the most inflationary and deceitful ecosystem of the entire web and that leads many companies to lie to themselves by buying traffic from platforms such as Facebook or Google, in a desperate bid to segment, only to realizing that in reality, segmentation has simply normalized the abnormal.
The idea goes beyond banning cookies, which, after all, were invented for a reason that is still valid: to make it possible to preserve information between browsing sessions and whose use, in any case, browsers themselves are beginning to prevent. It is simply a matter of making it completely illegal for a company to sell data or access to data on its users to any third party, be it an agency, an adtech company or a government institution. Simply put, making it illegal to traffic personal data.
Targeted advertising has caused a lot of damage. It has made possible all kinds of excesses, including being used by unscrupulous politicians. It is clearly responsible for all the superfluous garbage that fills our bandwidth, as shown when we install Ghostery, Blur or similar tools. The industry told advertisers that their ads would be more effective, and users that they would see fewer irrelevant ads, but neither has turned out to be the case. In fact, targeted advertising has only served one purpose: to line the pockets of those behind this monumental scam.
Why is Grindr authorized to market its users’ information, including some medical data, to 35 companies with which it has agreements, or that when we go to many sites we have to accept an agreement that includes the transfer of our personal data not only to the company that owns the site, but to 50 others? Does GDPR make any sense if we all blithely agree to highly dubious terms and conditions? Have we not asked ourselves whether the relationship between newspapers and Facebook, in which the former invest heavily in advertising in order to inflate their readership numbers, makes any sense at all?
In practice, none of this makes any sense: the whole economic ecosystem based on hyper-segmented advertising is a Ponzi scheme that is causing a great deal of damage, selling our data, and over which we should have all control. We have been deprived of our rights in the name of a few supposed benefits that make money for a few. At this point, it would be better to go back to basics and preventing further harm.
Eliminate the incentive to trafficking data, give users the tools to report when they suspect wrongdoing, and force all those who have built economic empires around it to rethink their business based on more acceptable models. Is this possible? Could it be done internationally? Would it be the solution to all our problems? Perhaps not, but it would be a vast improvement on how things currently stand.
At the very least, it is worth considering.
(En español, aquí)