After watching most of Zuckerberg’s testimony this past week, I don’t really think politicians or the general public grasp the full impact of Facebook on modern life and how the company operates as a tech company, the world’s largest publisher of user generated content, and also as a massive ad agency. Facebook, data and you: it’s complicated.
The US lawmakers don’t seem to understand what the digital advertising ecosystem is and how it works, even on a very basic level. They don’t understand how user data is passed back and forth between faceless companies on layers beneath the public faces of Google and Facebook, and how your data is traded multiple times in fractions of a second as your web pages load. How your data is forever kept and how clawing it back is essentially impossible.
Here is who you would have to claw your data back from:
Most people have this internal image of the facebook they use: baby pictures, Aunt Rose in the UK, random personality tests, the occasional funny video, feel-good picture memes, and now, more frequently, toxic political advertising, hate speech, and illegal opiate advertising.
Zuckerberg constantly corrected Senators and Congressmen by claiming that “facebook doesn’t sell data”. Politicians couldn’t seem to grasp that. While facebook might not invoice for data, facebook constantly sells their models of consumers based on the data they’ve posted and shared on facebook and in other places, and these models are updated continuously by the facebook pixels, like buttons and share buttons now ubiquitous throughout the web.
Selling the model is the same or perhaps worse than selling the actual data. It amounts to selling demographic, psychographic, and even the contact information of users to whoever will pay. In addition to this, facebook tracks users outside the platform via their like buttons, share buttons, and their pixel, so even if the person doesn’t have a facebook account they are still being tracked, wherever they go online, and you just know they are monetizing that data too. These models exist in a netherworld governed by facebook, and are probably beyond the reach of law.
Because of this inability to grasp what the company actually does, and the murkiness of the digital advertising ecosystem; I suspect facebook will escape any kind of meaningful regulation in the United States at least in the near term. Until comprehensive legal tools exist to force companies like facebook and Google to be transparent about how their products work and most importantly, what they actually do, we will be mired in a surface layer of back and forth discussion about user privacy controls; share/don’t share switches, Terms of Service simplification and the un-stifling or restoration of conservative or liberal user posts.
”...many in the industry still have no grasp of how the digital advertising ecosystem actually functions. There is so little transparency...
Advertising auctions and exchanges are not very transparent at all and very few people understand how they actually work. Today, a buyer of these ad services has to believe what they are told by the top players because there are no alternative suppliers that have similar reach. AND, if you get on the wrong side of these massive companies you are basically fucked, perhaps forever, with no recourse, something I think many people don’t really talk publicly about (well they might, but it probably isn’t indexed well). In fact, as I write this, I am kind of worried someone at one of these tech companies could turn a dial that decides who, if anyone, will see this post. Or, equally bad, an algorithm could decide to deep six it for indexing because certain keywords determine it might be critical of the companies themselves.
Google controls the way publishers position their ads on their owned pages, Google controls the ad serving, they control the technical design criteria the ads must have, they get final approval on creative for the ads used on their networks as well. They’ve embedded their own ad blocker in their browsing software Chrome that can obliterate ad competition from other providers if that is what they want to do. They can, and do, change any or all of it at a moment’s notice, and these changes are essentially made to serve themselves and their bottom lines and not you or I.
The dead tree news media, the legacy newspapers and their new incarnations as “digital media brands” have lost control over their advertising landscape. Some, like the New York Times, have made huge headway into a subscription model in hopes of taking their control back from the ad platforms. They know that these companies are paying them less and less to run ads on their sites, yet strangely, Google and Facebook somehow seem to be earning more and more from the ads.
”the hardcore proponents of programmatic advertising probably can't wait until the serving and consumption of ads is done in pure digital spirit, with virtual ads being served to virtual people
Buyers of online ads are now at the mercy of the two main players and a raft of other companies you have never heard of before who measure, track, resell, and retarget ads, in conjunction with or in spite of Google and Facebook. These side companies exist on the spillage of the main providers, and one of the reasons they exist, I believe, is to perpetuate the illusion that the ad ecosystem is healthy, multifaceted, diverse, fair. I am certain that all these side companies could be swept away in an instant, today, by the top two players if they chose to do so. The optics of such a move would suck, and maybe that is the only reason these smaller companies still exist.
But back to the data. A friend asked on his facebook page yesterday how he could delete his facebook content because he was now disgusted with the company. I explained that even if he did delete the content, the models that were built from that data would most likely still exist and facebook would continue to sell their model of him or rent it, or sell products built on it, and perpetually update it and flesh it out more and more with his browsing habits, geo-location data, audio recordings from inside his home, and whatever other new technologies come along. The accretion of personal data, like rings in a tree trunk, forever.
In essence, these companies don’t even need the real person anymore, they just have to say that their model is based on the real person and since they control 70-80% of the advertising spend, who is going to argue with them?
The way the digital ad economy works, the hardcore proponents of programmatic advertising probably can’t wait until the serving and consumption of ads is done in digital spirit, with virtual ads being served to virtual people, the very models of us built by facebook and Google. Just think of how easy those two companies could speed ad delivery and scale even more if actual people weren’t involved at all? I am sure Ai is doing pushups in the corner, just waiting for that day.
Real people ARE involved however. When I launched our first website in 1994, just as the web was becoming available, I remember a lot of concern and much discussion around how commercialization could destroy the web. How we had to be protectors of the internet. We were worried the internet might turn into a commercial wasteland at the expense of good information and real connections between people if we weren’t vigilant, if we lost our way.
Well, here we are.
Back then we had no idea how little individuals would value their own privacy. Now, with people even buying Google and Amazon audio surveillance devices to put in their homes, for the pitched claim of convenience, but in reality to improve the targeting of ad servers. Is all that audio data adding more rings to your tree? You better believe it.
Science Fiction has become modern life.