The Ethical Stakes of Data Collection and Ad Targeting

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Marketing veterans frequently remark, in relation to the privacy hullabaloo dominating the tech media space in 2019, that consumers are amenable to data collection and identity-based ad targeting provided that marketing campaigns produce information truly relevant to them. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of corporate enemy number one of privacy advocates, recently leveraged this same argument to shape discourse on future regulation of Facebook’s fundamentally data-driven business model, noting, “People consistently tell us that if they’re going to see ads, they want them to be relevant. That means we need to understand their interests.”

Since everyone’s picking on Facebook these days and it’s one of the two most powerful players in digital marketing, I’ll dive deeper into Zuckerberg’s explanation of the social giant’s business model in order to elucidate some of the most far-reaching ethical questions to be asked of that industry. Zuckerberg’s op-ed continues, “Based on what pages people like, what they click on, and other signals, we create categories—for example, people who like pages about gardening and live in Spain—and then charge advertisers to show ads to that category. Although advertising to specific groups existed well before the internet, online advertising allows much more precise targeting and therefore more-relevant ads.”

The data on consumers’ preferences supposedly support Zuckerberg’s fervor for collecting data on people’s preferences: The Spaniards want their horticultural #content. As long as that remains the case, the most for which privacy advocates can hope is greater transparency about data collection and sharing on the part of tech companies and greater individual control over how much data is divulged, recorded, and monetized. In Facebook’s case, that may look something like two versions of the service: one ad-free version paid for via subscriptions and the current free version for the less advertising-averse. For Facebook and others, the growing public interest in privacy will also mean GDPR-style heightened standards for communicating to users how their data is being collected. Soon enough, the swift terms sheet that pops up upon an initial visit to a site will no longer cut it for privacy expectations. Consent management will eat into tech companies’ coffers as they are forced to take the issue more seriously.

However, there is a more fundamental plaint to bring forward about ad targeting, data collection, and the future of media in the digital age. To put it bluntly, when corporations turn users’ identities into commodities, sharing our deeply personal preferences and movements in the world with advertisers, they presume to transform our humanity into ones and zeros and to make billions off our experience and attributes without sending so much as a dollar our way in return. The relevance-centric discourse invoked by Zuckerberg and many others in defense of data collection and ad targeting ignores this essential truth about the digital ad business. That’s not an ideological jeremiad. It’s a description, to reprise Zuckerberg’s pithy op-ed title, of “the facts about Facebook.”

Shoshana Zuboff makes this argument masterfully in her new book on surveillance capitalism, a term she has coined to describe an economic zeitgeist in which the world’s most powerful companies “create a new kind of marketplace out of our private human experiences.” Obviously, Zuboff aims not only to elucidate the economic and technological state of affairs but also to lobby on behalf of specific political programs that could adjust the reality she describes. That is not my goal here. I am rather pointing out, in accordance with a column in Street Fight today on consumers’ increasing savviness about the way their data is used, that business models that hinge on data collection and ad targeting are implicated in essential political and philosophical questions about how human experience is defined, who gets to define it, and who has the privilege of benefiting from it, financially or otherwise. Many consumers will not care about those questions. However, if the opening months of 2019 have taught us anything about privacy, it is that many other people caught in the crosshairs of data collection and ad targeting will care, and they will turn to intellectual luminaries, the media (hence Zuckerberg’s Wall Street Journal op-ed), and politicians to educate them.

With politicians and everyday political partisans on both the Left and Right peeved at Big Tech (the Left for tech’s role in economic inequality and election hacking, the Right for perceived anti-conservative bias, and thinkers across the spectrum for privacy concerns), it is time for Zuckerberg and his peers to get smarter about the arguments for and against data-driven ad targeting and the business models that rely on it. Facile paeans to relevance are not going to cut it—not with the scrutiny Facebook and the rest of the tech industry are now receiving. Tech executives should be as clear-eyed as their fiercest critics about the ethical underpinnings of their businesses. Only then can innovative, far-reaching conversations about the future of advertising, data collection, privacy, and Big Tech begin.

Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Joe is an ad/martech veteran who has covered the space since 2015. You can contact him at [email protected]