Targeted ads? Personalized search? Turns out people don’t want them

Graph of targeted ad research

I write often about my concern with internet privacy, with data collection, and the like. When I speak with IT professionals, they usually react to my concerns as though they are overblown. Several have told me that most people using computers really want the personalization that this data collection gives them – that they would be unhappy if the internet stopped collecting all this data.

Pew Research: Majority don’t like their data stored

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, the large majority of people are “anxious” and don’t want their data warehoused; they don’t value personalized searches and in fact detect – rightly – that they are
surrounded by an information bubble constructed on the basis of their past searches and interests.  This corresponds to results in other surveys showing that people find the advertising in their mailbox eerily personalized.   Most people have had at least some experience of this.

In spite of the fact that I have purposely lied and given a variety of birth dates across the internet in setting up free accounts, my upcoming 60th birthday has been heralded by several offers from dating agencies – in my email, on my phone, and – where they aren’t avoidable – in sidebar ads on the web. These ads have one thing in common – they all offer me the chance to date people over 50.  (The database records that I’m not married; being a vowed Sister is too uncommon a status to leave a mark – yet.)

What are the options?

The internet – and its ever-evolving ways to track us – is ubiquitous.  When people decide to take action on their anxiety and dislike of being tracked, most think it’s a matter of finding the opt-out button and hitting it once – like the Do Not Call registry for sales phones calls at home.  It’s disconcerting to find the best we can do is install a few layers of history-removing and cookie-blocking add-ons in our browsers.

Even this doesn’t work – more and more of the “free” services (remember: if you’re not paying, then you are the product) are demanding a link to a real identity. This ostensibly protects us from spammers and other false identities.  Given that the vast majority of internet users are NOT spammers, though, it means that millions of people give up a lot of personal data into the system.  For instance, the University of Notre Dame is releasing a new free online journal, Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization.  I can read it online in too-small print. If I want to sign-up to get future issues, I have to choose a gender and an age on the publisher Issuu‘s web site, and provide an email address.

A friend of mine decided to get out of the system. Even with heroic effort, she has only partly succeeded.

  • Knowing that credit cards tie your every purchase to your name (see the New York Times article about Target’s ability to detect that a person is pregnant – and Forbes about how it was done), but found that paying by check, at least in some chains, has the same effect: her checking account ID was already tied to her other data.
  • Disconnecting from the internet has proved harder than expected: her plan to use the library as a source for needed information failed when she found that libraries don’t buy and store paper copies of information from the internet, although she might be able to search a bit more anonymously on a library computer.
  • Her friends grumbled bitterly when she stopped using email and cellphone – and pointed out that her landline phone calls were digitally stored too. Her employer required her to use email for her work.

Alternatives to data-grabbing: Occupy the internet?

The Pew Research reveals that this is another power differential.  The vast majority of internet users do not want to have their data amalgamated and used to target them for advertising. They worry about becoming a victim of identity theft when data banks are hacked, something occurring ever-more-frequently.  They don’t want the much-touted personalized services.  Is dropping off the grid the only option?

The Occupy movement focuses especially on the gap between corporate interests of a small number of people and the very different needs of the rest.  Facebook, Google, Twitter and the rest have created a handful of billionaires, quite a few millionaires – and (as of February 2012) 845 million registered users of Facebook alone, whose data and ad-clicks are the source of all the money. So far, no other model has found a way to provide the services that people want – everything is one variation or another on gathering data for personalized ads – and for sharing with data aggregators. Diaspora – the best known of the alternative concepts – is still in the alpha phase.  Any alternative software faces the same immense barrier: the billions of dollars in ads and promotion that the corporations wield.

From the data privacy angle, there is another alternative: legislation.  The European Union and many EU nations have data protection policies – far from perfect, but a step forward. When Google rolled out its new data-amalgamation policy on March 1 (they had the gall to call it a privacy policy!), the EU launched an investigation to determine whether it breached current EU law – while internet users in the USA simply wrung their hands or griped online.

To Occupy the internet, we need to find ways to make it work for us, not against us.  The Pew Research Center study verifies many less scientific polls.  People don’t want to be nothing more than a data node and a target for ads.  Much has been made of the role of Twitter, Facebook, textmessages and the like in various democratic movements around the world. These are good things, but they also strengthen the hold of those few corporations on the flow of conversation and debate around the world.

I do not have the answers. But I won’t stop asking the question.

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One comment

  1. I’m one of the hand-wringers, because I don’t know what to do about it. Part of the problem for us users is that society has made it so that it’s almost impossible to do without internet, email, etc. It would be like trying to live without a telephone. I recently bought a new coat online from Land’s End, and have noticed tons of Land’s End ads around the edges of my sites now. It’s scary.

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