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Why Sir Tim might just change the way we view the internet

Why Sir Tim might just change the way we view the internet

Posted on 30th November 2020

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Every time you click on a link on a website, in the fraction of a second that it takes the page to load, your data is sent to thousands of places, each of which then seeks to match it against sets of data, some of which will be about you. The cookies that we all so blithely accepted when we go to a website are promptly sent to perhaps a 100 or more firms who then bid to serve you an advert.  Obviously, this is all done by algorithms in the blink of an eye.  Programmatic advertising, for that’s what this is, is a bit like a huge matchmaking exercise, pairing you, the internet user, with the brand that is most keen (and pays the most) to serve you an advert.  To say this raises privacy issues is only part of the equation.  With GDPR still a somewhat unwieldy solution to the problem of data privacy, and hacking of major businesses’ customers’ information an ongoing issue, why do we agree to this?

Probably unthinkingly, we accept the deal that we get free access to all the wonders of the world wide web and in return we get served ads. But the means by which this happens has changed. Some 20 years ago, Google began using contextual targeting, matching ads to specific, one-off actions (e.g. you search for a holiday so you get served a holiday ad) but after 2004, when Facebook came on the scene, the game changed…

Integrating internet users’ behaviours became the norm, tying together all our behaviour online to draw up a picture of our interests and allowing companies such as Facebook to use our personal data to target ads much more “intelligently” than ever before. Now you might be fine with this.  Most people are I suspect. But…

Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist James Ball’s book “The System – who owns the internet and how it owns us” is fascinating for all sorts of reasons not least the chapter from which I’ve take much of the above.  However, Ball details how “some ad networks were using automated web browsers (bots) to mimic human traffic and drive up ad views with fake clicks… (in addition to) automated content mills scraping other sites for cheap traffic.   Fraud, fakery and bogus content…was just how the internet is – a culture and a need built up over years with people seeking every trick at their disposal to pick up their share of the apparent wealth on offer.”

Serendipitously, I read “The System” before I read about Tim Berners-Lee’s plans for a new internet.  The two dovetailed and (I think) I’ve had a Damascene conversion.  Sir Tim BL is right.  Moreover, his concerns go far beyond the personal data that are hoovered up by the ad men: he really wants to save the world from privacy breaches, political shenanigans, fake news, etc. 

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Berners-Lee said, “I think people’s fear of bad things happening on the internet is becoming, justifiably, greater and greater.  If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong. We could end up with a digital dystopia if we don’t turn things around. It’s not that we need a 10-year plan for the web, we need to turn the web around now.”

His idea is that we have a Contract for the Web, which would be endorsed by everyone – governments, business and individuals – to protect us from abuse online and ensure the web delivers what he originally envisaged. In September 2018, Berners-Lee launched the start-up Inrupt, which he co-founded with cybersecurity entrepreneur John Bruce. Its mission is “to restore rightful ownership of data back to every web user.”  This, in my opinion, is the crux of the matter.  

James Ball’s book lends support to this, especially in his interview with Brian O’Kelley, the man who can fairly claim to  be the Godfather of programmatic advertising.  Given that O’Kelley has made $millions from his work, it’s interesting to read his conclusion, that, “I’m pretty cynical about the way that advertising works right now.  Just get rid of the personal data part, and all of a sudden, this is a really efficient eco-system…What would be really smart is to look at the attribution side of who purchases, which you don’t need any personal information for.  All the algorithm needs  is to know is which ads influence that purchase…. I’m pretty convinced that the incremental value of micro-targeting, versus the societal and overall internet impact, is nowhere worth it.”

That said, we know that many of the world’s biggest businesses are also its advertising titans, verging on monopolies in some people’s opinions.  Facebook makes billions from its targeted ads and is not going to give them up easily. There is increasing pressure on the social media companies to change their ways, with anti-trust legislation being talked about as a potential solution.  I suspect the new US president may well up the ante on this, but until they are regarded as publishers, with responsibility for the increasingly editorial decisions they make as to what appears on their sites, nothing is likely to change. There is a big fight looming, with preliminary skirmishes increasingly pitting governments and ‘old’ media against the ‘platforms’ of Facebook, Twitter et al.  The news (24th November) that the launch of Google’s so-called “privacy sandbox” might give the US tech giant even more control of the digital ad market has led to marketers in the UK demanding a major government investigation next year, amidst fears it could cost smaller media companies up to three-quarters of their ad revenues. None of this is as newsworthy as coronavirus, but with the latter looking, hopefully, likely to be defeated in the next 6-12 months, the question of personal data, advertising and the power of the social media giants is going to be one of the biggest, and most significant issues of the new decade.  

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT

Posted in Opinion

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