Ads, privacy and confusion



The consumer internet industry spent two decades building a huge, complex, chaotic pile of tools and systems to track and analyse what people do on the internet, and we’ve spent the last half-decade arguing about that, sometimes for very good reasons, and sometimes with strong doses of panic and opportunism. Now that’s mostly going to change, between unilateral decisions by some big tech platforms and waves of regulation from all around the world. But we don’t have any clarity on what that would mean, or even quite what we’re trying to achieve, and there are lots of unresolved questions. We are confused.

First, can we achieve the underlying economic aims of online advertising in a private way? Advertisers don’t necessarily want (or at least need) to know who you are as an individual. As Tim O’Reilly put it, data is sand, not oil - all this personal data actually only has value in the aggregate of millions. Advertisers don’t really want to know who you are - they want to show diaper ads to people who have babies, not to show them to people who don’t, and to have some sense of which ads drove half a million sales and which ads drove a million sales. Targeting ads per se doesn’t seem fundamentally evil, unless you think putting car ads in car magazines is also evil. But the internet became able to show car ads to people who read about cars yesterday, somewhere else - to target based on (Read more...)