The discussions around data policy still feel like they are framing data as oil - as a vast, passive resource that either needs to be exploited or protected. But this data isn’t dead fish from millions of years ago - it’s the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of over a third of the world’s population, the largest record of human thought and activity ever collected. It’s not oil, it’s history. It’s people. It’s us.
Saturday, May 15th, 2021
I subscribe to Peter Gasston’s newsletter, The Tech Landscape. It’s good. Peter’s a smart guy with his finger on the pulse of many technologies that are beyond my ken. I recommend subscribing.
But I was very taken aback by what he wrote in issue 202. It was to do with algorithmic recommendation engines.
This week I want to take a little dump on a tweet I read. I’m not going to link to it (I’m not that person), but it basically said something like: “I’m afraid to Google something because I don’t want the algorithm to think I like it, and I’m afraid to click a link because I don’t want the algorithm to show me more like it… what a cage.”
- GET requests shouldn’t have side effects. Adding to a dossier on someone’s browsing habits definitely counts as a side effect.
- It is literally a fundamental principle of the web platform that it should be safe to visit a web page.
But Peter describes ubiquitous surveillance as a feature, not a bug:
It’s observing what someone likes or does, then trying to make recommendations for more things like it—whether that’s books, TV shows, clothes, advertising, or whatever. It works on probability, so it’s going to make better guesses the more it knows you; if you like ten things of type A, then liking one thing of type B shouldn’t be enough to completely change its recommendations. The problem is, we don’t like “the algorithm” if it doesn’t work, and we don’t like it if works too well (“creepy!”). But it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage.
He would be correct if the balance of power were tipped towards the person actively looking for recommendations. As I said in my earlier post:
Don’t get me wrong: building a profile of someone based on their actions isn’t inherently wrong. If a user taps on “like” or “favourite” or “bookmark”, they are actively telling the server to perform an update (and so those actions should be POST requests). But do you see the difference in where the power lies?
When Peter says “it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage” that may be true for him, but that is not a shared feeling, as the original tweet demonstrates. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss someone else’s psychological pain because you don’t think they “get it”. I’m pretty sure everyone “gets” how recommendation engines are supposed to work. That’s not the issue. Trying to provide relevant content isn’t the problem. It’s the unbelievably heavy-handed methods that make it feel like a cage.
Peter uses the metaphor of a record shop:
“The algorithm” is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice; imagine you went to a record shop (remember them?) which had every recording ever released; how would you find new music? You’d either buy music by bands you know you already liked, or you’d take a pure gamble on something—which most of the time would be a miss. So you’d ask a store worker, and they’d recommend the music they liked—but that’s no guarantee you’d like it. A good worker would ask what type of music you like, and recommend music based on that—you might not like all the recommendations, but there’s more of a chance you’d like some. That’s just what “the algorithm” does.
But that’s not true. You don’t ask “the algorithm” for a recommendation—it foists them on you whether you want them or not. A more apt metaphor would be that you walked by a record shop once and the store worker came out and followed you down the street, into your home, and watched your every move for the rest of your life.
What Peter describes sounds great—a helpful knowledgable software agent that you ask for recommendations. But that’s not what “the algorithm” is. And that’s why it feels like a cage. That’s why it is a cage.
The original tweet was an open, honest, and vulnerable insight into what online recommendation engines feel like. That’s a valuable insight that should be taken on board, not dismissed.
And what a lack of imagination to look at an existing broken system—that doesn’t even provide good recommendations while making people afraid to click on links—and shrug and say that this is the best we can do. If this really is “is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice” then it’s no wonder that people feel like they need to go on a digital detox and get away from their devices in order to feel normal. It’s like saying that decapitation is the best way of solving headaches.
Imagine living in a surveillance state like East Germany, and saying “Well, how else is the government supposed to make informed decisions without constantly monitoring its citizens?” I think it’s more likely that you’d feel like you’re in a cage.
Apples to oranges? Kind of. But whether it’s surveillance communism or surveillance capitalism, there’s a shared methodology at work. They’re both systems that disempower people for the supposedly greater good of amassing data. Both are built on the false premise that problems can be solved by getting more and more data. If that results in collateral damage to people’s privacy and mental health, well …it’s all for the greater good, right?
It’s fucking bullshit. I don’t want to live in that cage and I don’t want anyone else to have to live in it either. I’m going to do everything I can to tear it down.
Saturday, March 6th, 2021
Privacy-invasive user tracking is to Google and Facebook what carbon emissions are to fossil fuel companies — a form of highly profitable pollution that for a very long time few people in the mainstream cared about, but now, seemingly suddenly, very many care about quite a bit.
Friday, February 12th, 2021
Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation becaue the profit invariably falls into two stools. If his predictions sounded at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20 or most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn.
But I couldn’t resist responding to a recent request for augery. Eric asked An Event Apart speakers for their predictions for the coming year. The responses have been gathered together and published, although it’s in the form of a PDF for some reason.
Here’s what I wrote:
This is probably more of a hope than a prediction, but 2021 could be the year that the ponzi scheme of online tracking and surveillance begins to crumble. People are beginning to realize that it’s far too intrusive, that it just doesn’t work most of the time, and that good ol’-fashioned contextual advertising would be better. Right now, it feels similar to the moment before the sub-prime mortgage bubble collapsed (a comparison made in Tim Hwang’s recent book, Subprime Attention Crisis). Back then people thought “Well, these big banks must know what they’re doing,” just as people have thought, “Well, Facebook and Google must know what they’re doing”…but that confidence is crumbling, exposing the shaky stack of cards that props up behavioral advertising. This doesn’t mean that online advertising is coming to an end—far from it. I think we might see a golden age of relevant, content-driven advertising. Laws like Europe’s GDPR will play a part. Apple’s recent changes to highlight privacy-violating apps will play a part. Most of all, I think that people will play a part. They will be increasingly aware that there’s nothing inevitable about tracking and surveillance and that the web works better when it respects people’s right to privacy. The sea change might not happen in 2021 but it feels like the water is beginning to swell.
Still, predicting the future is a mug’s game with as much scientific rigour as astrology, reading tea leaves, or haruspicy.
Tuesday, January 5th, 2021
If behavioural ads aren’t more effective than contextual ads, what is all of that data collected for?
If websites opted for a context ads and privacy-focused analytics approach, cookie banners could become obsolete…
Saturday, December 19th, 2020
See, that’s what I’m talking about;
Levy deftly conflates “advertising” and “personalized advertising”, as if there are no ways to target people planning a wedding without surveilling their web browsing behaviour. Facebook’s campaign casually ignores decades of advertising targeted based on the current webpage or video instead of who those people are because it would impact Facebook’s primary business. Most people who are reading an article about great wedding venues are probably planning a wedding, but you don’t need quite as much of the ad tech stack to make that work.
Monday, November 30th, 2020
Imagine if you were told that fossil fuels were the only way of extracting energy. It would be an absurd claim. Not only are other energy sources available—solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear—fossil fuels aren’t even the most effecient source of energy. To say that you can’t have energy without burning fossil fuels would be pitifully incorrect.
And yet when it comes to online advertising, we seem to have meekly accepted that you can’t have effective advertising without invasive tracking. But nothing could be further from the truth. Invasive tracking is to online advertising as fossil fuels are to energy production—an outmoded inefficient means of getting substandard results.
Before the onslaught of third party cookies and scripts, online advertising was contextual. If I searched for property insurance, I was likely to see an advertisement for property insurance. If I was reading an article about pet food, I was likely to be served an advertisement for pet food.
Simply put, contextual advertising ensured that the advertising that accompanied content could be relevant and timely. There was no big mystery about it: advertisers just needed to know what the content was about and they could serve up the appropriate advertisement. Nice and straightforward.
What if, instead of matching the advertisement to the content, we could match the advertisement to the person? Regardless of what they were searching for or reading, they’d be served advertisements that were relevant to them not just in that moment, but relevant to their lifestyles, thoughts and beliefs? Of course that would require building up dossiers of information about each person so that their profiles could be targeted and constantly updated. That’s where cross-site tracking comes in, with third-party cookies and scripts.
This is behavioural advertising. It has all but elimated contextual advertising. It has become so pervasive that online advertising and behavioural advertising have become synonymous. Contextual advertising is seen as laughably primitive compared with the clairvoyant powers of behavioural advertising.
But there’s a problem with behavioural advertising. A big problem.
It doesn’t work.
First of all, it relies on mind-reading powers by the advertising brokers—Facebook, Google, and the other middlemen of ad tech. For all the apocryphal folk tales of spooky second-guessing in online advertising, it mostly remains rubbish.
None of this works. They are still trying to sell me car insurance for my subway ride.
Have you actually paid attention to what advertisements you’re served? Maciej did:
I saw a lot of ads for GEICO, a brand of car insurance that I already own.
I saw multiple ads for Red Lobster, a seafood restaurant chain in America. Red Lobster doesn’t have any branches in San Francisco, where I live.
Finally, I saw a ton of ads for Zipcar, which is a car sharing service. These really pissed me off, not because I have a problem with Zipcar, but because they showed me the algorithm wasn’t even trying. It’s one thing to get the targeting wrong, but the ad engine can’t even decide if I have a car or not! You just showed me five ads for car insurance.
And yet in the twisted logic of ad tech, all of this would be seen as evidence that they need to gather even more data with even more invasive tracking and surveillance.
It turns out that bizarre logic is at the very heart of behavioural advertising. I highly recommend reading the in-depth report from The Correspondent called The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising:
It’s about a market of a quarter of a trillion dollars governed by irrationality.
The benchmarks that advertising companies use – intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed – are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).
Suppose someone told you that they keep tigers out of their garden by turning on their kitchen light every evening. You might think their logic is flawed, but they’ve been turning on the kitchen light every evening for years and there hasn’t been a single tiger in the garden the whole time. That’s the logic used by ad tech companies to justify trackers.
Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for users. The advertisements are irrelevant most of the time, and on the few occasions where the advertising hits the mark, it just feels creepy.
Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for advertisers. They spend their hard-earned money on invasive ad tech that results in no more sales or brand recognition than if they had relied on good ol’ contextual advertising.
Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is good for the middlemen doing the tracking. Facebook and Google are two of the biggest players here. But that doesn’t mean that their business models need to be permanently anchored to surveillance. The very monopolies that make them kings of behavioural advertising—the biggest social network and the biggest search engine—would also make them titans of contextual advertising. They could pivot from an invasive behavioural model of advertising to a privacy-respecting contextual advertising model.
The incumbents will almost certainly resist changing something so fundamental. It would be like expecting an energy company to change their focus from fossil fuels to renewables. It won’t happen quickly. But I think that it may eventually happen …if we demand it.
In the meantime, we can all play our part. Just as we can do our bit for the environment at an individual level by sorting our recycling and making green choices in our day to day lives, we can all do our bit for the web too.
The least we can do is block third-party cookies. Some browsers are now doing this by default. That’s good.
Alas, because this software is labelled under ad blocking, it has led to the ludicrous situation of an ethical argument being made to allow surveillance and tracking! It goes like this: websites need advertising to survive; if you block the ads, then you are denying these sites revenue. That argument would make sense if we were talking about contextual advertising. But it makes no sense when it comes to behavioural advertising …unless you genuinely believe that online advertising has to be behavioural, which means that online advertising has to track you to be effective. Such a belief would be completely wrong. But that doesn’t stop it being widely held.
To argue that there is a moral argument against blocking trackers is ridiculous. If anything, there’s a moral argument to be made for installing anti-tracking software for yourself, your friends, and your family. Otherwise we are collectively giving up our privacy for a business model that doesn’t even work.
It’s a shame that advertisers will lose out if tracking-blocking software prevents their ads from loading. But that’s only going to happen in the case of behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising won’t be blocked. Contextual advertising is also more lightweight than behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising is far less creepy than behavioural advertising. And crucially, contextual advertising works.
That shouldn’t be a controversial claim: the idea that people would be interested in adverts that are related to the content they’re currently looking at. The greatest trick the ad tech industry has pulled is convincing the world that contextual relevance is somehow less effective than some secret algorithm fed with all our data that’s supposed to be able to practically read our minds and know us better than we know ourselves.
Y’know, if this mind-control ray really could give me timely relevant adverts, I might possibly consider paying the price with my privacy. But as it is, YouTube still hasn’t figured out that I’m not interested in Top Gear or football.
The next time someone is talking about the necessity of advertising on the web as a business model, ask for details. Do they mean contextual or behavioural advertising? They’ll probably laugh at you and say that behavioural advertising is the only thing that works. They’ll be wrong.
I know it’s hard to imagine a future without tracker-driven behavioural advertising. But there are no good business reasons for it to continue. It was once hard to imagine a future without oil or coal. But through collective action, legislation, and smart business decisions, we can make a cleaner future.
Monday, September 7th, 2020
Just because there is now a multi-billion-dollar industry based on the abject betrayal of our privacy doesn’t mean the sociopaths who built it have any right whatsoever to continue getting away with it. They talk in circles but their argument boils down to entitlement: they think our privacy is theirs for the taking because they’ve been getting away with taking it without our knowledge, and it is valuable.
Tuesday, September 18th, 2018
The incentives that Google technology created were very important in the evolution of this current stage of the web. I think we should be skeptical of AMP because once again a single company’s technology – the same single company – is creating the incentives for where we go next.
A thorough examination of the incentives that led to AMP, and the dangers of what could happen next:
I’m not sure I am yet willing to cede the web to a single monopolized company.
Thursday, August 2nd, 2018
I agree completely. And AMP is not the answer:
Given the assumption that any additional bandwidth offered to web developers will immediately be consumed, there seems to be just one possible solution, which is to reduce the amount of bytes that are transmitted. For some bizarre reason, this hasn’t happened on the main web, because it somehow makes more sense to create an exact copy of every page on their site that is expressly designed for speed. Welcome back, WAP — except, for some reason, this mobile-centric copy is entirely dependent on yet more bytes. This is the dumbfoundingly dumb premise of AMP.
Monday, May 21st, 2018
The focus here is on performance, but these tools are equally useful for shining a light on just how bad the situation is with online surveillance and tracking.
This looks like a terrific use of a Raspberry Pi—blocking adtech surveillance at the network level.
Wouldn’t it be great if the clichéd going-home-for-Christmas/Thanksgiving to fix the printer/wifi included setting up one of these?
There’s an article about Pi-hole in Business Week where the creators offer some advice for those who equate any kind of online advertising with ubiquitous surveillance:
For publishers struggling to survive even with maximum ad surveillance, the Pi-hole team recommends a renewed focus on subscriptions, affiliate links, and curated endorsements for products and services that might truly interest users, similar to the way podcast hosts may talk about how much they personally enjoy a sponsor’s products. There’s nothing wrong with pitching people stuff they might enjoy, the team says. It’s just the constant, ever-intensifying surveillance that needs to stop.
Thursday, April 5th, 2018
Doc Searls Weblog · Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problems are nothing compared to what’s coming for all of online publishing
What will happen when the Times, the New Yorker and other pubs own up to the simple fact that they are just as guilty as Facebook of leaking its readers’ data to other parties, for—in many if not most cases—God knows what purposes besides “interest-based” advertising? And what happens when the EU comes down on them too? It’s game-on after 25 May, when the EU can start fining violators of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Key fact: the GDPR protects the data blood of EU citizens wherever they risk having it sucked in the digital world.
Sunday, January 14th, 2018
In this excerpt from his forthcoming book, Cennydd gives an overview of what GDPR will bring to the web. This legislation is like a charter of user’s rights, and things don’t look good for the surveillance kings of online advertising:
The black box will be forced open, and people will find it’s full of snakes.
Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
I’d love to see other publishers take a firm stand against the shoddy ad tech from data brokers slowing down their sites.
We go to our partners and say, ‘This is how fast things need to be executed; if you don’t hit this threshold, we can’t put you on the site.’
(I mean, I’d really like to see publishers take a stand against invasive tracking via ads, but taking a stand on speed is a good start.)