Big Brother is watching… if by “Big Brother” I mean Google, Facebook, Twitter, and an unseen multitude of corporate advertisers.
And by “watching,” I mean tracking your activity online. It’s mostly done for the sake of pestering you with personalized advertisements. However, this tracking has far-reaching consequences, both on the screen and in your life.
It affects your entire experience of the internet. You might not realize that the same software that gives you that convenient auto-completion in your search engine bar also determines what news stories you see, what shopping results you get and more.
These days, so much of our picture of the world comes from the internet. It’s disturbing to learn how much of that picture is created by the algorithms (and corporate interests) behind social media platforms and search engines.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways online tracking is influencing your life, and how you can break free of it.
- What ads you see
I’m sure you already know about this one, but it’s still worth bringing up as targeted ads get ever more sophisticated, invasive and widely used.
Google’s ad tracking, in fact, crossed a line last year that the search engine giant itself once promised to respect.
Google now merges personally identifiable data from users of Gmail, YouTube and other accounts with their activity across the web. This often includes their real names.
Other than being annoying, what’s so bad about personalized ads?
- Disturbing your subconscious mind. Ads are usually crafted to play on your fears, insecurities and impulses. Do you really want to be harassed with ads for weight loss supplements or debt settlement services, for example, when you’re just trying to check the news?
Since we are exposed to literally thousands of ads every day, this constant reminder of your insecurities is sure to subconsciously reinforce them – even if you feel like you just ignore the ads.
- Increasing imbalance between companies and consumers. Companies will claim that targeted ads are good for buyers, because they will be exposed more to products they will actually want to buy.
However, most purchases from internet ads don’t go like, “Oh thank goodness, I didn’t know this product existed but it’s exactly what I needed and at the best price!”
Most people are highly vulnerable to being influenced and persuaded by advertisers to buy products they don’t really want or need, and to make impulse purchases at higher prices than if they had been seeking out the product for themselves.
Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, recently wrote a paper about the dangers posed to consumers by online tracking. In it, he writes:
“The digitization of commerce dramatically alters the capacity of firms to influence consumers at a personal level. […] 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.”
Companies know so more about us and they’re putting this knowledge to work in a systematic way. It’s completely unprecedented. And they usually don’t have their customers’ best interests at heart – they just want to make money.
This can only lead to exploitation, consistent overcharging and a loss of free choice as corporations are increasingly able to dictate what and when you buy.
- Who you vote for — news echo chamber – filter bubble
How much of what you believe about the world comes from social media?
An estimated 61% of millennials rely on Facebook as their major news outlet. Add in Twitter and Reddit, and you’ve got a solid chunk of the US population.
Not to go all “what’s wrong with kids these days,” but trusting social media platforms to curate news can lead to serious trouble.
When we see a news story, whether in a print journal or on our Facebook feed, we naturally assume that it’s a neutral commentary on reality. Maybe on an intellectual level we know that all news is biased in one way or another, that it isn’t possible to present events in a totally objective way.
But as we’re scrolling down our social media page and breezing past headlines, most of us aren’t taking them in with this understanding.
Since the last presidential election, there’s been a lot of research about how fake news spreads on social media.
The consensus is that fake news stories with clickbait titles catch on like wildfire, and people rarely take the trouble to verify what they read.
The spread of fake news online has very real offline consequences, especially when it is amplified with social media echo chambers.
When you use Google, Facebook or Twitter, you’re not going to see exactly the same page as another user. The search results you get and the stories that pop up in your news feed are determined by algorithms that analyze your past behavior online and decide what you will be the most interested in.
What you search for, what sites you visit and who you’re connected with on social media all play into this.
If you joined a Bernie Sanders event, Facebook isn’t going to show you stories from Fox News. And if you searched once for “Trump rally near me,” Google wouldn’t offer you links about Trump’s latest scandals and ethical failures when you look for news about the election.
Instead of swimming free in the vast ocean of the internet, you end up more and more confined to the limited pool of similar viewpoints.
From the perspective of my Facebook page, where I only see “relevant” stories that I like and that support my beliefs, it will always seem like the whole world is on my side.
As every user’s online experience gets increasingly personalized, these islands of opinion are getting more and more segregated.
- How much you pay for what you buy
The promise of big data is that it will show you the best products for the best prices, but as I mentioned earlier, companies don’t have so much incentive to sell you stuff at the lowest rate. If they can get you to buy the more expensive of two options, why wouldn’t they?
It turns out some very fishy manipulation is already happening in this respect.
It came out that Orbitz, the travel booking service, was showing more expensive hotel options to people who accessed the site on Apple computers rather than Windows.
The company’s research showed that Mac users commonly spent up to 30% more on hotels. And so, if you use a Mac to look for hotel rooms on Orbitz, it would show you suites and upgraded rooms, instead of the lower-priced standard rooms offered to Windows users.
Only if the Mac user searches specifically by price will the cheaper results show up.
The big problem here is transparency. Maybe the Mac users will choose to spend more, but it’s not a company’s place to dupe them into thinking the more expensive option is the only one.
How many other companies are experimenting with policies like this, with subtle manipulations of data and presentation to milk a few extra bucks out of their customers?
- Your career prospects
The rise of online tracking has triggered a lot of concern about civil rights, and with good reason.
The world of internet advertising now includes ads for jobs, housing, and credit. Meanwhile, search engines and advertisers now have full knowledge of most users’ ethnicity, gender, financial status, etc.
It should be obvious that this could easily go very wrong.
In fact, it already has.
A 2015 study out of Carnegie Melon, using fake Google accounts, found that male job-seekers were much more likely to be shown ads for high-paying executive positions than their female counterparts.
People who visited websites about substance abuse were also shown ads for rehab programs, although they did not make any changes in their “ad settings,” a feature Google introduced supposedly to give users some control over the ads they see. (And Google’s policy, by the way, specifically claims it doesn’t target users for health conditions.)
There’s huge potential for abuse in this industry.
By assigning ads based on users’ race or gender, services like Facebook and Google are toeing the line between shady ethics and downright civil rights violations.
Placing ads in the best place to reach a certain audience is nothing new. It’s no surprise to see beer commercials during a football game broadcast, or tampon ads in a woman’s magazine.
The difference is that on the internet, the entire spectrum of ads that a person sees is specifically built around their “user profile,” and they have no idea. A user who is, for example, a woman or ethnic minority might never be exposed to the ads for credit cards or upscale job listings that a white male user will see, even if they’re just as interested.
At this point, it’s impossible to say how much of this is going on. It’s also difficult to draw the line between appealing to a target audience and discrimination.
Even harder is determining responsibility, in the tangled web of algorithms, service providers and third-party advertisers.
There’s no legal structure for regulating targeted ads, and as the Carnegie Melon study demonstrated, users have precious little say about what type of ads they see.
Break free of the filter bubble
At this point, maybe you’re wondering if there’s any way to use the internet without being manipulated by unseen corporations.
Fortunately, even though it’s already 2017, it’s not 1984 yet.
If you start using alternatives to corporate services like Google, Bing and Yahoo, you’re already taking a step towards greater privacy and clarity online.
The single best thing you can do is switch to a private search engine that doesn’t track you or store personal data.
DuckDuckGo is one well-trusted option. MyPrivateSearch is a new search engine that’s rapidly becoming popular. It’s safe, easy to use and provides results from the big mainstream engines.
Minimizing the online tracking you’re exposed to will help give you a better experience online, and a better picture of the world around you.