My previous decisions post, Targeted Ads and Polarization, was a bit of a rant about targeted advertising and its effects on increasing the political polarization in the country along with other undesirable side-effects. The more I thought about this growth phenomenon, the more I worried about the direction technology could be taking our society in general. We have a lot more to worry about than what advertisements are being presented to us. None of my comments should be interpreted to mean I am opposed to advertising per se — directed or not.
Most geeks groove over the latest technical marvels without worrying overly much about the broader implications of new technology. The teams that put together the first transfer of data from one computer to another thought it was cool all by itself without any thought that what they were doing would revolutionize communication and create new industries (along the way creating a surge on pornography and illegal copying). Our present day society could not function without the financial transactions that are carried out over the Internet. I renew my library books and order prescription medicine over the Internet. We could probably re-adapt to a non-connected society, but who would realistically propose that? These unintended consequences are good.
Geeks, technocrats, and hobbyists should continue to enjoy their microcosm of toys and push forward the technologies involved. Who knows what new unintended consequence might arise from some amateur’s office?
But what happens when new technology has unintended consequences that are detrimental? Thomas Pynchon explored a similar question in Gravity’s Rainbow when he looked at one way rocket science could be used when it was being born.
What are your expectations of privacy on the Internet? They’d better not be high unless you take special precautions. So let us assume no privacy. Does that give advertisers a free license to use your surfing habits to target advertisements? If so, then does it also give politicians the right to mine your surfing data to find effective ways to entice you to change your mind and vote for them? That is, there are at least two separate issues: (1) who owns my surfing data, and (2) what are the limits of use for that data — are there any limits? For comparison, think of the Fair Use Doctrine that allows (or allowed) limited copying of media data for re-broadcast. The concept of fair use recognized that society has a valid purpose in permitting quotes to be broadcast verbatim, but still protected the value of the copyright holder’s property. Is there an equivalent to the Fair Use Doctrine that protects me from unwanted use of my personal data? Before you answer, go back and read some of the privacy disclosures on applications that you, like me and everyone else, skip over.
To understand some of the problems here, step back a moment and consider a different, but related, use of my shopping data. Think of credit cards. All companies now use advanced neural networks and other applications to look for spending patterns in their customers. Since I live in California and am a modest spender, a sudden spate of extravagant purchases in Las Vegas would probably trigger a confirming phone call before my credit card company would approve more purchases. That is a good use of my personal data. Look for patterns in spending and flag anything that looks suspicious. However, that huge database that AMEX, Visa, and MasterCard collects is certainly valuable for other applications that I might not like so much. Fraud detection is only one part of their goal in analyzing my data. How do I control the use of my personal data? As I said above, “Before you answer, go back and read some of the privacy disclosures on applications that you, like me and everyone else, skip over.” Can I, without giving up the utility of having a credit card, prevent data leakage?
While you are mulling over that question, consider that Google announced recently that it has made “the most radical transformation ever” by including results from your social networking in its presentations of search results. Right. This might be a good thing and might be useful, but once again consider what is happening here. A better picture of you and your habits is being prepared every time you search, and the picture is not just limited to what you are searching for! In a very real sense, Google’s radical transformation is a dangerous one. That does not mean we should eliminate it. All new things are dangerous. Cars kill. We do not give up driving because of the danger of having a fatal accident. The trick is to determine early if the positive results outweigh the negative results by a significant margin.
I have a Google Voice phone number. When I use it, will the voice recognition software Google is so good with be used to feed the data mine? If I discuss the plans Patricia and I have for our upcoming vacation with a friend on that number, will we suddenly start getting more cruise advertisements? (By the way, we already get a lot!)
When I buy things from Amazon, the echoes of every purchase are there every time I re-visit Amazon’s website. That seems like fair use to me. My main concern is that my purchases on Amazon become generally available to other sources. If the company sells my information, I should get a cut — good luck on that!
One final example of targeted advertising which, contrary to what some people think, is fair use. That is the discount cards for grocery stores. You give a store information about yourself and your shopping preferences. That information is valuable to them. In return, they give you discounts on selected items. That is valuable to you. This seems fair to me because there is a defined quid pro quo, and I can opt out simply by not swiping my card.