This House would ban targeted online advertising on the basis of user profiles and demographics

Advertisers have long sought new and innovative ways to reach their target markets. With the birth of television, firms sought to determine what demographics tuned in when and on what programmes in order to get the most impact, usually with the intent to get the biggest return in terms of sales.

This search for the most effective advertising strategy has continued into the information age and onto the internet. By utilizing the personal information people leave as a trail online, such as through cookies which can track the users browsing history, firms have been able to collate personal information about even anonymous users and consequently been able to market products directly at them, or at least to the personality the advertiser has concluded to be them.[1] This has led to advertisers marketing themselves by this means in a range of ways, often popping up as ads on search engines and social networks, or even following users around as they browse.[2] These ads are designed to appear in the general use of the internet and websites, and are tailored to the specific internet user.

The ethics of this sort of advertising has become hotly debated in Europe, and increasingly in the United States and further afield as well. The extent to which the collection of data is an invasion of privacy, and the consequent extent to which it erodes individuals’ anonymity on the internet, has led to heated debate on the issue. The following debate seeks to explain the positions as they stand with regard to this advertising’s effectiveness and its ethics.

This has often been a primarily concerned with commercial companies advertising their products aggressively. But advertising comes in all forms and now political advertising can be seen to be equally insidious. The far right leader of the Northern League in Italy Matteo Salvini after the 2018 election proclaimed “Thank God for the internet. Thank God for social media. Thank God for Facebook”[3] because the internet had allowed them to get their message out in a way that traditional media would not.  Cambridge Analytica has been accused of using personal profiles and information harvested from facebook to target advertising on behalf of the Trump campaign in 2016.

In terms of specific policies that might be employed when considering a ban the European Union is already taking steps to increase transparency about such advertising and a right to be forgotten to erase such information gathered on them[4] and are preventing targeting through cookies[5] but this is still too weak so we would proposing to officially ban the use of any programs that work to collate personal data to determine individual preferences. This could be policed by routine examinations of online firms and their practices.

 

[1] Ball, J. And Cross, C., “How will the new law on cookies affect internet browsing?” guardian.co.uk, 13 April 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/apr/13/new-law-cookies-affect-internet-browsing

[2] Rich, L., “Online Ads thet Just Won’t Let up”, Norton, 2010, http://us.norton.com/yoursecurityresource/detail.jsp?aid=online_ads

[3] Wong, Julia Carrie, ‘’It might work too well’: the dark art of political advertising online’, The Guardian, 19 March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/mar/19/facebook-political-ads-social-media-history-online-democracy

[4] European Commission, “Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such date”, COM(2012) 11 final, 25 January 2012, http://ec.europa.eu/justice/data-protection/document/review2012/com_2012_11_en.pdf    

[5] Graziano, S., “Why the EU cookie directive is not the end of targeted marketing”, guardian media network, 7 September 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media-network/media-network-blog/2012/sep/07/eu-cookie-law-directive-digital-marketing

 

Title 
This advertising strategy undermines people’s right to personal privacy
Point 

Targeted advertising based on profiles and demographic details is the product of information acquired in a fashion that is fundamentally invasive of individuals’ privacy. When individuals go online they act as private parties, often enjoying anonymity in their personal activities. Yet online services collate information and seek to use it to market products and services that are specifically tailored to those individuals. This means that individuals’ activities online are in fact susceptible to someone else’s interference and oversight, stealing from them the privacy and security the internet has striven to provide. At the most basic level, the invasion of privacy that collating and using private data gleaned from online behaviour is unacceptable.[1] There is a very real risk of the information being misused, as the data can be held, Facebook for example keeps all information ever entered to the social network,[2] and even resold to third parties that the internet users might not want to come into possession of their personal details. People should always be given the option of consent to the use of their data by any party, as is the case in many jurisdictions, such as the European Union has done in implementing its 'cookie law'.[3] But this has not always been the case in practice. GSR, working with Cambridge Analytica, was able to access data not just on those who consented to take part in ‘academic research’ but on their friends who would not even know their data had been accessed.[4] This can lead to serious abuses of individuals’ private information by corporations, or other agents that might have less savoury uses for the information.

 

[1] The Canadian Press. “Academics Want Watchdog to Probe Online Profiling”. CTV News. 28 July 2008. http://www.ctvnews.ca/academics-want-watchdog-to-probe-online-profiling-1.311784

[2] Lewis, J., “Facebook faces EU curbs on selling users’ interests to advertisers”, The Telegraph, 26 November 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/8917836/Facebook-faces-EU-curbs-on-selling-users-interests-to-advertisers.html

[3] European Union, “Directive 2009/136/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council”, Official Journal of the European Union, L 337/11, 18 December 2009, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2009:337:0011:0036:En:PDF

[4] Cadwalladr, Carole, ‘’I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower’, The Observer, 18 March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/data-war-whistleblower-christopher-wylie-faceook-nix-bannon-trump  

Counterpoint 

The data that is used in targeted marketing is freely available online and can be protected in many ways. The programmes that target marketing often do not ever gain real access to individuals’ identities, but rather collate their search details. It is highly unlikely that any of this information could be used to identify actual individuals. Furthermore, the information in question is put into the public sphere by individuals availing of online services and not guaranteed any form of special protection. They exist and are revealed in the public sphere, and belong there. It is therefore wrong to say that privacy is being undermined by targeted advertising. When data is accessed with no permission at all it is already against the law so no new ban would be needed.

Title 
The use of these strategies are alienating
Point 

Internet users have come to understand the nature of demographic and personal marketing, and have generally rejected it. This is because they consider the whole process invasive, with their personal details exploited to the profit of third party businesses seeking to peddle their wares. This has resulted in a substantial backlash against these forms of marketing, and built up prejudicial attitudes toward the companies that use these schemes, and the internet services that facilitate them. The facts of these attitudes have been borne out in a number of research studies, showing that as much as 66% of Americans do not want their personal information used to tailor advertising to them.[1] This has led to less than the desired outcome for marketers who rather than experiencing their sales increased efficiently through more targeted marketing alienate their potential customers. More than just invasive, this form of marketing tends toward stereotypes, using programmes that favour broad brushstrokes in their marketing, resulting in stereotyped services on the basis of apparent gender and race. A recent example of this sort of racial profiling took place in 2013 when it was revealed that having a stereotypical “black” name brought up ads for criminal records checks 25% more often than for users with other names.[2] This was, to say the least, considered exceptionally alienating by many users. This and other incidents have compounded the sense of alienation from these forms of marketing among consumers.

 

[1] Pinsent Masons. “US Web Users Reject Behavioural Advertising, Study Finds”. Out-Law. 30 September 2009. http://www.out-law.com/page-10410

[2] Gayle, D. “Google Accused of Racism After Black Names are 25% More Likely to Bring Up Adverts for Criminal Records Checks”. The Daily Mail.5 February 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2273741/Google-accused-racism-black-names-25-likely-bring-adverts-criminal-records-checks.html

[2] Gayle, D. “Google Accused of Racism After Black Names are 25% More Likely to Bring Up Adverts for Criminal Records Checks”. The Daily Mail.5 February 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2273741/Google-accused-racism-black-names-25-likely-bring-adverts-criminal-records-checks.html

Counterpoint 

The marketing programmes and collations have over time become far more sophisticated and textured in allocating ad space. While some people feel it a bit disconcerting that their computer seems to know what might interest them, many others have found that the targeted advertising has made the seeking out of desired goods and services far easier. And even if people feel it is a bit alienating, it does not necessarily stop them from availing of the marketed services. Nor does some people disliking it provide a good reason for banning the practice.

Title 
Demographic/profile-based advertising fundamentally alters the experience of the internet for people of different backgrounds
Point 

When the experience of the internet differs between people because of their backgrounds and past activities, the position of the online experience as one free of informational prejudice is undermined. It is important that the internet and the sites and services that float around it be as free from external prejudicing that contemporary targeted marketing creates. This marketing shapes at the most basic level the internet experience people interact with, and as it differs between people the quality of the universal service is diminished in a way.[1] This is particularly problematic when that internet experience is designed to differentiate between people of differing demographic backgrounds, which serve only to heighten divisions between these groups. The internet should remain a neutral space.

[1] Cartagena, R. “Online Tracking, Profiling and Targeting – Behavioural Advertisers Beware”. eCommerce Times. 19 December 2011, http://www.ecommercetimes.com/story/73966.html

Counterpoint 

The extent to which the online experience is altered by targeted marketing is extremely limited. Certainly they are less influential on how people interact with the internet than are search engines’ own choices in search priorities. The user of Bing has a much more differentiated experience from the Google user, than do individuals targeted by demographic-based marketing strategies. Ultimately, it does not matter overmuch if people have somewhat differentiated experiences anyway as long as those different experiences make the online experience better.

Title 
Individual targeting undermines market and political fairness
Point 

Targeting adverts may sound like a good idea but what about when it goes to the next step; different prices for different people? Different political messages for different voters? At its most extreme someone who is richer, or more damagingly more desperate, an addict or fanatic perhaps, might be given adverts showing and leading to purchases at higher prices to someone the advertiser believes, based on their profile is unlikely to part with a large amount of money. In political messaging one voter could be shown one slogan while another from a very different demographic should be shown almost the opposite both asking to vote for the same candidate. With individualised ads the voter will never encounter that the political advertiser is saying two things at once, something the Trump campaign used in 2016 with up to 175,000 online ad variations for different groups of voters.[1]

It is fundamentally unfair when it comes to the market; companies should not be able to charge more simply because they think someone will be able, or feel they have to spend more. In politics the whole concept of voting for a candidate based on their platform is undermined; the voter may never know their true platform, while simultaneously believing they have been told it.

 

[1] Grassegger, Hannes, and Krogerus, Mikael, ‘The Data That Turned the World Upside Down’, Motherboard, 28 January 2017, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win

Counterpoint 

If someone can afford more for a product should they not be charged more? Or if someone is willing to pay more why should the company not take advantage of that? This is not unfair it is simply a perfect market that would help with redistribution.

In politics everyone votes for different reasons and it is right that politicians should be able to target those reasons to encourage a vote. Targeting potentially contradictory messages can be countered by the opponent also targeting counter ads. Campaigning is already negative, this is not much different, simply on a more granular level.

Title 
Better targeted advertising benefits consumers
Point 

By targeting demographics and personal profiles, businesses are able to put forward the services that are statistically likely to pique their target’s interest. Or politicians are able to highlight the messages that matter to that individual voter. In the past, because advertisers had limited budgets and no sophisticated means of reaching their target audience, they had to settle for broad demographics and to cater to majority tastes and interests. This led to a reduction in the breadth of goods and services to niche markets. Targeted advertising helps to alleviate this issue by allowing customers of eclectic tastes to actually find services they are interested in outside the mainstream, enriching their own lives in the process. The internet is vast, and it is often difficult to sift out things that might be interesting to the individual consumer from all the information available. Targeted advertising is one of the most effective ways of providing this information to people.[1] The data compiled to create an individual profile is easily able to divine a broad brushstrokes outline of a person’s likely interests. This creates a better experience for internet users because it provides a far easier means of finding goods and services, groups and ideas, that would interest them, often from sources they might not have otherwise been aware. When Facebook furnishes this service to advertisers, users are shown ads that fit their profiles, ones they might find interesting.[2] Given that there is only finite ad space, it is far better for the consumer to see ads for things they care about while using the service rather than just ignoring pointless things.

 

[1] Columbus Metropolitan Library. “Using Demographics to Target Your Market”. 2012. http://www.columbuslibrary.org/research/tutorials/using-demographic

[2] Lewis, J., “Facebook faces EU curbs on selling users’ interests to advertisers”, The Telegraph, 26 November 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/8917836/Facebook-faces-EU-curbs-on-selling-users-interests-to-advertisers.html

Counterpoint 

Even if the services advertised are effective in providing services that may interest them, the fundamental violation of privacy entailed in compiling personal search data is too serious a danger to people than the fleeting benefits that this sort of advertising might furnish. But this form of advertising is often not as effective, since its reliance on programmes that stereotype demographics can often result in misallocation of advertising. Furthermore, the discomfort people feel at this advertising means they do not like experiencing it, useful or not.

Title 
It is legitimate to utilize this sort of information for advertising
Point 

The information trail left online through cookies etc. is a public statement, put into the public sphere. Provided the individual's identity is not revealed the information is usable through the impermeable intermediary of security settings, etc. Thus, firms and others interested in the data get information about users without ever being able to ascertain the actual identity of those individuals, protecting their individual privacy.[1] For this reason it cannot be said that there is any true violation of privacy. Furthermore, this sort of targeted advertising, while focusing on general demographics and programmes, does succeed in hitting its mark most of the time. Thus, there is a value in having the programming, and it is absent stereotype. All of this advertising is simply the continuation of firms’ and organisations age-old effort to better understand their clients and to cater for their needs and should not be considered any differently to adverts being placed as a result of working out what programs are watched by what demographic. TV is also moving towards targeting ads to individuals through information such as household income and purchasing history, this is information that is not private and online usage should be considered the same way.[2] Advertising is difficult business, given media saturation, and it is only right that this system exist to better serve the customers, given it is the natural outgrowth of past efforts.

 

[1] Story, L. “AOL Brings Out the Penguins to Explain Ad Targeting”. New York Times. 9 March 2008. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/09/aol-brings-out-the-penguins-to-explain-ad-targeting-ok-saul-and-louise-post-with-article/

[2] Deloitte, “Targeted television advertisements miss the point”, 2012, http://www.deloitte.com/view/en_GX/global/industries/technology-media-telecommunications/tmt-predictions-2012/media-2012/18c9068df67a4310VgnVCM1000001a56f00aRCRD.htm

[2] Deloitte, “Targeted television advertisements miss the point”, 2012, http://www.deloitte.com/view/en_GX/global/industries/technology-media-telecommunications/tmt-predictions-2012/media-2012/18c9068df67a4310VgnVCM1000001a56f00aRCRD.htm

Counterpoint 

The anonymity of this information is far from guaranteed, particularly when talking about such large troves of data the website handing over the information may not even be aware of everything it has handed over and firms’ data collection can indeed serve as a serious threat to people’s privacy and identity on the internet. The technology in use is extremely difficult to police, and the data, once collected, can wander off to less reputable places. Thus Facebook has claimed it has not handed over any data to Cambridge Analytica that then got used in political campaigning, but rather it went via a third party doing academic research.[1] Even if neither the provider of the data, or the initial purchaser intends to use the data in an above board manner there is no guarantee that will remain the case; the data itself is valuable and thus is likely to be sold on. It is not enough to claim this as a natural evolution of advertising when it is accepted that there are personal boundaries advertisers cannot cross, such as into the home. This advertising strategy carries too many risks to be permitted.

 

[1] Cadwalladr, Carole, ‘’I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower’, The Observer, 18 March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/data-war-whistleblower-christopher-wylie-faceook-nix-bannon-trump  

Title 
This advertising strategy provides benefits by making marketing more efficient and allows smaller markets to develop
Point 

Targeted advertising using the wealth of personal information left for collection and collation online makes business far more efficient for advertisers. Until recently advertisers were forced to use ads that went into the world basically at random, hitting everyone and not necessarily reaching the desired audience. This meant that producers could rarely target small markets, and thus advertising and mass media products all focused on large groups.[1] Thus small producers have been crowded out from the mainstream. With the advent of targeted marketing, producers can now afford to compete for business and to advertise their services to the groups that actually want what they have to sell. Thus, businesses have been able to flourish that once would have languished without access to a proper market. An example of this is the targeting by niche fashion boutiques targeting the diffuse but expansive “hipster” market.[2] This has led to a more efficient business world, with lots of producers that can compete with the larger mainstream quite effectively. In politics the benefit could be equally great for outsider candidates and those from small parties who don’t have the fundraising potential of the main candidates.

 

[1] Columbus Metropolitan Library. “Using Demographics to Target Your Market”. 2012. http://www.columbuslibrary.org/research/tutorials/using-demographic

[2] Fleur, B. “New Meaning for the Term ‘Niche Market’”. New York Times. 29 September 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/29/style/29iht-Rshop.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Counterpoint 

The benefit to small firms is far outweighed by the loss of privacy, something that the size of firms involved potentially makes worse. Smaller companies are unlikely to have the sophisticated data security that larger businesses do making it more likely that the information will fall into the hands of individuals who wish to misuse it. Moreover, if targeted advertising alienates consumers then those small firms who are able to use such advertising may not be getting the full benefit. While individuals may well enjoy the various smaller or niche services being offered, they often do not like having it shoved in their faces. Being put off can detract customers from these markets, preventing the flourishing of niche market businesses desired. The strategy is just too invasive and disconcerting. Furthermore, far from successfully hitting their markets all the time, the programmes used to collate data rely on stereotypes and broad characterizations of users to try to reach their markets. This lack of sophistication leads to further alienation by users.

Bibliography 

Ball, J. And Cross, C., “How will the new law on cookies affect internet browsing?” guardian.co.uk, 13 April 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/apr/13/new-law-cookies-affect-internet-browsing

Cadwalladr, Carole, ‘’I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower’, The Observer, 18 March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/data-war-whistleblower-christopher-wylie-faceook-nix-bannon-trump  

Cartagena, R. “Online Tracking, Profiling and Targeting – Behavioural Advertisers Beware”. eCommerce Times. 19 December 2011, http://www.ecommercetimes.com/story/73966.html

Columbus Metropolitan Library. “Using Demographics to Target Your Market”. 2012. http://www.columbuslibrary.org/research/tutorials/using-demographic

Deloitte, “Targeted television advertisements miss the point”, 2012, http://www.deloitte.com/view/en_GX/global/industries/technology-media-telecommunications/tmt-predictions-2012/media-2012/18c9068df67a4310VgnVCM1000001a56f00aRCRD.htm

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Fleur, B. “New Meaning for the Term ‘Niche Market’”. New York Times. 29 September 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/29/style/29iht-Rshop.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Gayle, D. “Google Accused of Racism After Black Names are 25% More Likely to Bring Up Adverts for Criminal Records Checks”. The Daily Mail.5 February 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2273741/Google-accused-racism-black-names-25-likely-bring-adverts-criminal-records-checks.html

Grassegger, Hannes, and Krogerus, Mikael, ‘The Data That Turned the World Upside Down’, Motherboard, 28 January 2017, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win

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Story, L. “AOL Brings Out the Penguins to Explain Ad Targeting”. New York Times. 9 March 2008. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/09/aol-brings-out-the-penguins-to-explain-ad-targeting-ok-saul-and-louise-post-with-article/

The Canadian Press. “Academics Want Watchdog to Probe Online Profiling”. CTV News. 28 July 2008. http://www.ctvnews.ca/academics-want-watchdog-to-probe-online-profiling-1.311784

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