Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Online advertising: is it dangerous?

The idea of catering advertising to specific groups or demographics has been around forever. If you buy a car magazine, chances are the ads in it are going to involve cars. If you flip on the Food Network, you’re going to find yourself knee deep in commercials for food (I think the Food Network only exists to make me hungry.) Print media has applied this concept, TV has done so to, so it is only logical that the internet be the next frontier of effective advertising.

Advertising does become trickier on the Internet, because it is much easier to ignore. A way to combat this is to apply the above concept, to f base ads on an individual level. TV and print media lacks this specificity, because it cannot target specific individuals, only groups. For the advertisers to do this they must track your activity. Personally, ads on the Internet being garnered to my tastes does not seem too terrible, so in that sense it doesn’t matter to me. The big issue that most people have here is the privacy.

If you look at it as someone’s harvesting our information for his or her own gain, then it does seem pretty bad. I think this is a very simplistic view though, because the information being tracked (search history, “likes,” etc.) is not harmful, and it can’t even be spun in a harmful way. If you “liked” a certain website, for example, you aren’t really doing it for you, you are doing it to show other people that you are interested in that website, in this way you are willingly providing the net with information. Is it that bad that someone used a piece of information that you willingly put on the net in the first place? I think not.

The fear here is mostly coming from a slippery slope mentality: “If companies are tracking my internet activity, what else are they tracking? What else can they track and get away with if this behavior continues?” Despite the element of paranoia in this thinking, it still is a valid, to an extent. Although this advertising strategy is benign for now, there is some potential for someone to use tracking in a more malicious way.


  1. One of the interesting questions here is how we might define "harm." As I asked on another post, what if the government were to subpoena contact information for people who searched politically hot terms, say about terrorism or suicide bombing? Or, for less extreme (or paranoid) examples, what about cases where an individual searches emotionally sensitive terms, like abortion or cancer, only to be constantly reminded with ads of their situation? Or, as has often happened on Facebook, a request to catch up with a "friend" who has passed away (which is a kind of ad for Facebook itself)?

    Are these examples harmful, or just a flaw in the algorithm that we need to accept in exchange for the benefits?

  2. "What else are they tracking" is what worries me. If they know where we live, what we like, and they know what we are typing are they seeing our confidential information? Is online banking really safe? What about all the bills people pay online? It might be relatively safe today, but who knows about the future.

  3. Their algorithms aren't flawed, they do precisely what they were made to do, it's just they don't, and can't, 'do' empathy. In that sense, I always have thought of the internet as passive, the "harm" of your latter examples seem inconsequential if you take the internet as the impersonal creature that it is. Those examples are not harmful in intent, which is something to think about. An important question seems to be: Do the benefits outweigh the potential for "harm"?