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Privacy Will Not Ruin the Free Internet

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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June 8, 2012

Tuesday I posted about the controversy over Do Not Track and the advertising industry’s objections to pro-privacy default settings. One thing I didn’t comment on was that the Interactive Advertising Bureau trotted out the usual argument against any steps to prevent the full force and fury of modern American capitalism from figuring out how to spy on us most thoroughly:

Such actions also will constrain the flow of ad-supported digital content that informs, educates, entertains and delights consumers across the U.S. and the world.

It is true that much free internet content is ad-supported. It is true that ads that are better targeted toward those who find them of interest are of more financial value. But it does not follow that unless ads get ever more precise in their targeting, based on ever greater intrusions into surfers’ privacy, the flow of ad-supported content will harm the free internet.

This claim is reminiscent of arguments by the record industry, which at times would have you believe that without draconian intellectual property enforcement regimes, the human activity of producing music will cease.

If the ad industry gets its way, online advertisers will be permitted to continue competing over who can collect the most detailed (and therefore intrusive) information about consumers. What will then follow will look like this:

1) Companies compete to better spy upon consumers for behavioral targeting.
2) The new intrusiveness quickly becomes the industry standard, which any advertising company will have to match if it wants to survive.
3) Companies will not at this point breathe a sigh of satisfaction, and sit back content in the knowledge that a new innovation has forever made the free internet stable and profitable. Instead, they will find themselves back at step 1, again proclaiming that the efficiency/intrusiveness of behavioral advertising must increase lest the free internet be destroyed. Rinse and repeat.

This cycle is how capitalism brings about improvements in efficiency. But in this case, improvements in “efficiency” mean frightening things for our privacy. At what point will we finally say “enough!” and put an end to ever-more-intense commercial surveillance?

If increases in the intrusiveness of ad-network surveillance can’t go on forever, why don’t we put a halt to them now? Why don’t we preserve privacy on the internet, with all the other benefits that brings us?

Television ads have never been targeted—each ad reaches all of a station or network’s viewers, broadcasters have never been privy to intimate details of their audience’s viewing habits, and this situation has never much changed. Yet the television industry has been hugely profitable for over 60 years despite the gross lack of targetability in the medium’s ads—and more to the point, the fact that the amount of targetability was stable and never much changed over the years. (Insofar as television ads are targetable at all, it is through contextual rather than behavioral targeting—ads are matched to the audiences that different shows attract. This is also a very effective means of targeting ads online, and one that would in no way be harmed by decent privacy protections. If you want to reach golfers, place your ad on a site about golf.)

If we protect our privacy and “constrain” behavioral advertising, ad budgets will not dry up, and ad-supported offerings will not wither away any more than television stations have.

My colleague Chris Calabrese laid out other problems with the arguments for behavioral profiling very clearly in congressional testimony last year.

Sometimes as a society we let competition among companies wanting to harvest a particular pasture run free. Other times we rope off a section and declare, “you shall not compete here.” We no longer allow companies to compete over who can cut the most corners on worker safety, for example, or who can make small children the largest proportion of their factory workforce, or who can most boldly assassinate or intimidate their competitors (which is what economic competition has consisted of in more than one time and place). We seek to remove some activities as vectors of competition by passing laws prohibiting them, so that all companies will stand on even ground and be protected from competitive pressure to do those things.

If we value the privacy of the internet, which has been such a crucial element of its success, that’s what we need to do when it comes to commercial online surveillance.

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