If you're an average person your feelings about advertising range from mildly annoyed to openly hostile. No matter where you go you are bombarded with ads. Sandwich ads, drug ads, cereal ads, ads with some jackass bragging about how great his pillows are, ads where Tom Selleck finally sells out completely to the reverse mortgage industry, and, worst of all, political ads ... ugh. Can't I just watch some moderately amusing tv show in peace??
But that's actually the point. For years giving our time and attention to advertisers has been the currency we have paid to enjoy TV and radio. Even newspapers and magazines have been subsidized by advertising. Did you really think 50 cents per reader was enough to keep a newspaper going? Nope, having to skip through pages of advertising and local grocery store flyers is what kept that industry going.
And now … the internet! The internet is the most fundamental shift to how we consume since the invention of the printing press. A world-wide, open, collaborative place for information sharing (being a bit idealistic here, the reality is much darker, but let's keep this light..), almost 100% paid for by advertising.
Wait, wait, wait ... I pay $100/month to get on the internet. Yup, you do, but that is just the price of access … the cover charge. Most everything you use the internet for: news, sports, recipes, movie times, porn, blah blah blah. All that is available to you for the price of seeing a bunch of ads. About the only things not completely ad-driven are sites where you actually pay for things: pet food, groceries, things like that. But even there they typically subsidize with some ad income, just because they can.
All the most popular platforms: google, facebook, twitter, instagram ... all exist because you are willing to let them show you ads while you are on their platform.
But the cost of advertising is starting to soar way beyond just your attention span, and it may not be a price you are willing to pay.
Before we expand on that let's take a quick look at how advertising on the internet is fundamentally different from all other forms of advertising. Until the internet all advertising functioned as a "push" mechanism. The advertisements were posted somewhere and people would go to the advertisement. Billboards, you drive by them. Radio, you listen to the station and there they are. TV, watch your favorite programs and the ads are there. No matter who you are, you see the same ads.
The internet flipped that. On the internet you request content and it is delivered to you, specifically you, so it is a "pull" mechanism. This allows advertisers to deliver personalized content for every request. Think of the power that gives an advertiser: the ability to target ads to a specific user (or user profile) instead of making a generic ad for everyone. Not to mention it allowed advertisers to increase their profits. Internet advertising is typically charged by either the number of times the ad is shown, or the number of times the ad is clicked, so better ad targeting leads to fewer wasted impressions and a better chance someone will click the ad. But to accomplish this the advertisers need to know who is making the request. The more information the better, so they needed data. Lots of data.
Giving the advertisers the benefit of the doubt, they probably started to do data collection with the specific goal of making advertising more relevant. And, honestly, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. You are paying the price of viewing advertising; you may as well see advertising that could possibly benefit you. So advertisers started to look for ways to learn more about the person making the content request. What other sites have they visited? Where are they located? Male or female? Young or old? The more robust the profile the better the ad can be targeted.
But the data gathering process took on a life of its own. Soon advertisers realized they could share this information, or they could sell it to other advertisers. Then e-commerce sites got into the mix, adding things you have bought into the profile, and, sometimes, very specific information about you like your name, age, address. Now these profiles moved from a generic profile of "some internet user who lives in oklahoma and likes dogs" to "barb smith from oklahoma city who owns 3 dogs, 2 small and one large, plus one cat. she's married to Bill and has 2 children, one boy and one girl" and so on. You can see how the second version of that could be a lot more valuable to advertisers trying to deliver ads to the users most likely to actually interact with the ad.
Then came facebook, the platform that makes all of its money selling the information you put on their platform. In addition to using your information to make their own advertising hyper-relevant, they are more than happy to sell advertisers very specific information about you, your family, and your friends. That helped close the loop. With more than 3 billion active users (their number which I have a hard time believing, but whatever...) all posting photos about their kids, friends, family, vacations, etc. Facebook has mined all that information and they likely know more about their active users then most of their real-life friends. Using their phone app they tracked your every move. And, again, they are happy to sell this information to basically anyone.
So now the cost of the internet has gone beyond just seeing ads. Now you are being watched as you go around the internet: where you go, what you buy, articles you read, things you click on, what you "like". This information is gathered behind the scenes and there is no way for you to stop it. Sure, you could stop using the internet, but that seems like a pretty high price to pay just to keep your personal information out of the hands of whatever random company willing to pay for the information.
Is this price too high? Honestly, that is up to you. What’s your privacy worth to you? But consider this: if you do think the price is too high there isn't anything you can do about it. So even if you are OK with it now, think about your children or other people in your family. Their data is being mined as well and they have the same all or nothing option on paying this price.
This sounds fucking bleak. Any good news here??
Some. In 2018 the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This piece of legislation grants EU citizens ownership of their personal data, requiring businesses engaged in data collection to ask permission BEFORE collecting your data. This is a huge step and has started to fundamentally change data collection practices in the EU. As with any piece of legislation it isn’t perfect and it has put a large burden on some companies, but overall it is really a strong statement to make: people have the right to own their information. The most unfortunate thing about the GDPR so far is the EU regulators have not been consistently enforcing violations so far. If they start to really enforce the regulation and slap down violators it will substantially change data collection practices throughout the EU, and have ripple effects in many other countries.
Don’t live in the EU? There are other regulations being put into place every year. Brazil is due to release one very similar to the GDPR to protect their citizens. It keeps getting pushed out but is currently scheduled to take effect August 2021.
What about the US? At the federal level nothing is being done. If you're at all familiar with US politics this won't come as any surprise … they are the best law makers money can buy. At the state level there is considerably more activity. California and Nevada have both recently passed laws to protect the privacy of their citizens. And another 15 or so states have legislation in the works (which may or may not actually pass). But in the typical corporation-first attitude of the US many of these laws are opt-out, not opt-in. Opt-out basically means the companies can continue data collection as usual unless you go to the effort of telling them you don’t want them too. Not exactly citizen-first, but definitely better than nothing.
Some browser makers are building in functionality which gives you the ability to take better control of your privacy. Apple’s safari is leading the way in the big-name browsers, with both Chrome and Firefox following their lead. Smaller browser providers like Brave have been built to be private by default.
But the best thing you can do is be as careful as possible. Use the browser settings available to you to help protect your privacy.
Make this an issue with your elected officials. That is the ONLY way anything substantial will get done and we need solid regulations at the federal level. State level regulations really just become a confusing nightmare, with every state just doing their own thing.
One obvious, but difficult, move you can make is to stay off social media. Particularly Facebook. Fucking Facebook. You have to remember one thing about Facebook: 100% of their income comes from taking the data you post, adding any other interaction you have on their platform, using their phone app to track your movements, all to build a robust profile about you that they sell. Most of the time they sell it to advertisers who use their platform to run ad campaigns. But they also like to sell it to external companies. And, for God’s sake, don’t ever let them convince you any different. They have taken some measures over the years to give you the ability to “opt-out” of their data collection machine, but that was always due to backlash over their practices, not out of any sense of moral responsibility or concern they were going too far. Facebook’s default behavior always has and always will be to gather as much of your data as they can.
To wrap this all up: