What Does It Really Matter If Companies Are Tracking Us Online?

A scholar argues that the real issue is protecting consumers from corporations that are developing ever more sophisticated techniques for getting people to part with their money.

Say you, like me, went to bed a little early last night. And when you woke up this morning, you decided to catch the episode of the Daily Show that you missed. So you pointed your browser over to thedailyshow.com, and there, as you expected, is John Oliver. But there's something else there too, at least if you're me: flashing deals for hotels in Annapolis, which just so happens to be where I've been planning a weekend away.

We all are familiar at this point with the targeted ads that follow us around the web, linked to our browsing history. In this case, Google (who served me this ad) only got it half right: I had already booked a place.

And yet, I am planning a trip to Annapolis, and Google "knows" this, and is using this information to try to sell me stuff, a practice commonly criticized as "creepy." But as philosopher Evan Selinger asserted in Slate last year, the word "creepy" isn't particularly illuminating. What, really, is wrong with ad tracking? Why does it bother us? What is the problem?

new paper by professor Ryan Calo at the University of Washington goes the furthest I have seen in elucidating the potential harms of digital-ad targeting. And his argument basically boils down to this: This isn't about the sanctity of the individual or even, strictly speaking, about privacy. This is about protectingconsumers from profit-seeking corporations, who are gaining an insurmountable edge in their efforts to get people to part with their money.

But those are my words. Here are Calo's:

The digitization of commerce dramatically alters the capacity of firms to influence consumers at a personal level. A specific set of emerging technologies and techniques will empower corporations to discover and exploit the limits of each, individual consumer's ability to pursue his or her own self-interest. Firms will increasingly be able to trigger irrationality or vulnerability in consumers -- leading to actual and perceived harms that challenge the limits of consumer protection law, but which regulators can scarcely ignore.

Calo is taking the long view here. Digital marketing techniques haven't quite gotten sophisticated enough to take advantage of a consumer's idiosyncratic irrationalities. Right now, he writes, digital advertising's main strategy is relevance: putting the relevant ad in front of the right person. But Calo foresees a much more personalized approach down the road -- not just the right good, but a customized pitch, delivered late at night, when the company knows you, particularly, have a tendency to make impulse purchases.

Read more at The Atlantic

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