The Webs We Weave

With Carole Cadwalladr and Cambridge Analytica back in the news, I feel compelled to write something more about data analytics and targeted advertising.

Amidst the outlandish claims about shadowy technological puppet-masters influencing the credulous (EU loving?) proles to march to the voting booths on June 23rd 2016 to vote “leave”, one can glimpse the outlines of a much bigger story.

The media has turned its beams on Facebook, resulting in a concomitant fall in the company’s share price, but the Guardian/Observer could just as well have started their investigation by looking in a mirror.

Targeted advertising is hardly the sole preserve of Zuckerberg and the denizens of 1 Hacker Way. There is scarcely a legacy news outlet that does not host trackers and targeted advertising in return for a revenue share.

Surveillance marketing is the lifeblood of the online publishing industry. Every website with a Facebook “Like” button or a Google “+1” button sends a unique identifier to your browser. That token enables Facebook and Google, respectively, to track your activity across all of the sites that include their widget.

You know the annoying pop-ups that you see—courtesy of a European Union Directive, enshrined in UK law as part of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations—asking whether you consent to the use of cookies? Cookies are but one method ad tech uses to build consumer profiles.

To that end, I have yet to see any legacy news outlet acknowledge that their platforms host ad brokers which make extensive use of the same techniques that Cambridge Analytica apparently employed to propel candidate Donald Trump to the presidency.

Now, you know as well as I do just how frequently targeted advertisements are off base or how little attention you generally pay them.

There are serious questions to address with regard to privacy, the online economy and the asymmetric, some may even say parasitic relationship that exists between advertising brokers, publishers and their audiences. This short post can only really scratch the surface.

The Cadwalladr narrative, however, mainly consists of blowing smoke in people’s eyes. The idea that the self-aggrandising salesmen who promote these platforms were truly “do[ing] things in the field of that have never been done before” is, frankly, risible.