An era of “relentless surveillance”

We’re used to the internet predominantly being free. Most websites and services don’t hide behind a paywall and instead provide content to users. This is because the business model that the internet tends to follow is similar to that of many other media — advertising-funded. Ad-funding has been described as “the default model to support online content and services”. Like television, radio and newspapers, internet sites tend to provide content for no (or low) cost and build their revenue by selling advertising. According to this article, they then have to balance the classic tension that all of these media face: the desire of media consumers to have less intrusive advertising with the desire of advertisers to have more prominent advertising that attracts the users attention. This balance has to be carefully managed — if you drive consumers away, you lose the product that you’re selling to advertisers; if you don’t satisfy the advertisers, you risk your business’s revenue.

Why has this become the default model? This article claims that it’s because it’s “the easiest model for a web startup to implement, and the easiest to market to investors”.

So advertising-funded media is nothing new. What makes the internet different to any other media advertising?

1. We are the product

Well, we’re always the product, right? Our eyeballs have always been the product that has been packaged up and sold to advertisers. So what’s so different here? The difference is that our lives have become the product too. Those photos that we put on Instagram, the status updates on Facebook, the 128 character insights we share on Twitter… we’re generating the very content that gets us to use these platforms, making ourselves available for advertisers. As Lifehacker put it, “when you’re not paying with cash you’re paying with your personal information”. We’re paying twofold — by what we voluntarily post on social media and also in terms of the demographic information that allows us to be better targeted by advertisers. In fact, these snippets of our lives don’t belong to us anymore once they’re posted online — with many popular sites taking the rights to use whatever we’ve uploaded however they see fit, including creating derivative works or transferring rights to other companies.

There is plenty of evidence that we’re conscious of the privacy issues around the internet as an ad-funded medium. In earlier blogposts, I’ve discussed some of the poll results showing our increasing privacy concerns. Along these lines, a recent study showed that young people understand and use the privacy controls available to them on Web 2.0 sites. However, it does not address the fact that most of the research participants grew up in a world with social networking and the internet and may feel that by using such controls they do not need to be as cautious about what they share. The same study also highlighted that social networking sites have become so embedded in our lives that people may feel immense pressure to disclose information online in order to maintain their social lives despite the fact that the privacy controls offered are insufficient and do not meet their individual privacy needs.

So despite our use of privacy controls to try and take some control over what we post online, we feel pressure to post online, have to accept terms of service that take rights to use what we post that we may not even be aware we’re agreeing to and feel that our privacy needs aren’t being met. Our data is also being used to help advertisers target us more effectively online as they’re the ones paying for the service. The internet takes us being the product to a whole new level compared to other media.

2. Behavioural targeting and surveillance

A lot of internet advertising uses behavioural targeting. Behavioural data could include all sorts of things like what you’re searching for on Google, what websites you’re visiting, what you click on and, in the case of location-based services, even where you are through GPS data. This is all about what we’re doing both online and offline.

Of course, this is valuable to advertisers. Just think about Google AdWords — the ability to advertise to you about something totally relevant to what you’re already searching for? Of course it appeals. Though this is unlikely to bother consumers too much as it’s likely to be relevant to them and what they’re looking for then and there and the personal data it’s using is a one-off search term.

Where it starts to get more creepy is when data mining insights allow companies to know more about your life than you’re willing to share with them. In one case, Target managed to figure out a teenage girl was pregnant before her family knew from their big data-based “pregnancy prediction score”. Interestingly, another woman’s attempt to try and keep her pregnancy private led to a police warning as her husband’s significant purchase of Amazon gift cards was viewed as suspicious!

So the internet differs from other media because it’s not looking to find people of a certain gender or age range or socio-economic level based on the fact that people who fit that demographic profile tend to watch this TV programme or tend to read the business section of this newspaper. It’s actually identifying you, individually, and targeting you accordingly. And it’s collecting a whole host of personal data to facilitate this.

There are privacy settings and opt-out programmes that users can take advantage of to limit behavioural targeting. In 2012 the Digital Advertising Alliance launched a turquoise triangle that allowed internet users to opt out of online behavioural targeted advertising. However what this body made up of digital advertising trade organisations is pushing for is self-regulation. And they are running educational campaigns informing us about privacy issues and how they’re treating our data. While I’m all for education, the programme also highlights the benefits of targeted advertising — you get ads that are more relevant to your needs! — which is true, but suggests that this group may have its own agenda when helping people to understand the privacy issues at play.

At any rate, the growth of big data and behavioural data for better advertising targeting functionality has brought us to what Maciej Ceglowski describes as a “dynamic of relentless surveillance”. Where private companies are collecting as much information as possible on the off-chance that it might yield useful insights one day and also to help advertisers reach the exact people they want.

So what can we do about it?

This leads to the question — what options are there to help us regain some more control over our privacy online?

The potential solutions that are being proposed are many and various, but ultimately, any solution that is likely to have a real impact on how we behave online is likely to be a combination of actions that creates real and meaningful change. Here are some solutions that are being proposed:

  • This article suggests that if enough people start using ad blockers, the internet would need to find new funding models. This looks like the “necessity is the mother of invention” approach — by cutting off the current model at the knees and making it less lucrative, we force companies to innovate and find different solutions.
  • Maciej Ceglowski outlines a number of concrete steps that he believes should be taken that he classifies into three broad categories: regulation, decentralisation and de-Americanisation. He outlines a number of regulations that he believes should be introduced including limitation of what behavioural data can be collected, limiting how long it can be kept for and who they can share it with and making exceptions to these regulations opt in versus opt out.
  • How about we just pay for privacy? This article identifies a range of payment possibilities and calls for us to start paying for the services we love to ensure continued service alongside our privacy and abandoning those services that turn its users into the product. Another alternative is the freemium model whereby a small group of paying subscribers with access to more features subsidise the free use of the same service by a larger number of users. Of course, many companies that use freemium models still advertise to free users, so these models would need to evolve in order to make a difference to our online privacy.

The big challenge is affecting this change and getting people to take action whether it be using ad blockers, demanding better regulation or paying their hard earned cash for services. It’s hard to convince people to pay for something that they’re used to getting for free. Just ask the newspaper industry who have tried to use paywalls online. There’s plenty of evidence that people simply aren’t willing to pay unless there’s unique content. So perhaps the place to start is with education so that people are more aware of the issues. Let’s start by informing people so that they become motivated to take action.

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