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Ad Industry Feeds White House Its Fallacious “Internet Depends on Spying” Logic

Crop of image by x ray delta one via Flickr
Crop of image by x ray delta one via Flickr
Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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March 17, 2014

Representatives of the online advertising industry headed to the White House last week to speak with the task force on “big data and privacy” that President Obama asked advisor John Podesta to head up. The executives said they would bring the White House their usual message: that advertising supports free content on the Web. After the meeting, the ad executives reported being pleased, with one telling Adweek, “It was clear they knew the importance of the digital economy.”

Well of course they do—everyone understands the importance of the digital economy. But let’s hope the members of the Big Data Task Force see through the fallacy behind the ad industry’s claim that because so many online services are supported by advertising, therefore we must allow advertisers a free reign to engage in ever-more-intrusive spying on what internet users are doing.

Let’s hope the task force members will also look at online commercial surveillance through a dynamic lens, not a static one. That is, they will understand that the issue is not merely what kinds of commercial mass surveillance are underway at the current moment (though those are bad enough), but also how it is likely to play out in the future. As I discussed in this post, in the absence of laws protecting the privacy of internet users, companies will continue competing over who can collect the most valuable (read: intrusive) information about consumers. Each “innovation” in spying will quickly become standard practice, until someone discovers a way of tracking Americans even more closely. And so on.

And let’s hope the task force members will keep in mind that advertising can be valuable without being based on intrusive surveillance of individuals’ activities and interests. Television ads, for example, have never been individually targeted, yet the television industry has been hugely profitable for over 60 years.