Behavioural Advertising: A Self-Reflection

Through real-time bidding, intimate and very detailed information about you may end up in databases owned by companies you have never heard about without you ever consenting to it.

If you could slow down time, I mean really slow it down, you would be able to see that the adverts on lots of the websites you visit aren’t just there waiting to be seen. It does take time, though very little, for the advertisers to serve you with them. You. Not someone else. You get there, they identify you, you get measured up, then potential advertisers decide whether you are worth it, they wrestle a bit, and finally, the winner takes the opportunity to catch your attention. Voila. You are now served with an advertisement on the best pink running shoes for mixed surfaces for people with neutral gait. Awesome. You are happy. Besides being able to read the article you visited the webpage for, you get some potentially useful commercial information. All is good, for everyone. You are not bothered by ads you have no interest in. The advertiser does not pour money out of the window. It is all very efficient. Long live efficiency.

Unfortunately, this is not the full story. And the full story is a bit less rosy. What I have just described as a wrestling match for the opportunity to catch your attention between potential advertisers is, in the world of advertising, called ‘real-time bidding’, or RTB for short. In those milliseconds when RTB is happening, information about you is being broadcast to hundreds or thousands of companies. This may include information about your exact location, what you read, listen to or watch online, information about your health or sexual behaviour, and unique codes with which companies can continue to follow you online. That is, through RTB, intimate and very detailed information about you may end up in databases owned by companies you have never heard about without you ever consenting to this in any genuine sense.

Nobody really knows what happens to all that personal data, who uses it, when, and how. Presumably, those organisations that set the standards for RTB do not want to sell you out. But, as our fellow-campaigner, Bits of Freedom points out, they make it possible and do nothing against it. You may recall when Facebook made the leaking of personal data possible and did nothing against it. At that time, we ended up with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and some unsatisfactorily democratic new political strongmen. Something very similar could also happen with real time bidding. And by the way, it is not only your democracy that is being put at risk through this practice. You are at risk too. Measures to maintain effective control over your personal and sometimes very intimate data are missing. Data that can be tied to you gets broadcast.

Some of you might shrug your shoulders now while humming that it doesn’t matter. Why would you want to hide what you read and where you are if you are an honest and law-abiding citizen? You may have a whole plethora of very justified reasons for that. I myself am in a very good relationship with my boss and colleagues, but I do not want them to know certain intimate details about my life. Information that could be easily derived from what I read on the internet. And I am a relatively uninteresting advocacy officer living in a very liberal country. People living in less fortunate circumstances may have much more pressing reasons for wanting to keep certain (completely legal) facets of their lives to themselves. These could be related to their chances of having proper health insurance, to their chance of getting a job, or to getting a good rate on a bank loan.

At this point you might ask why, if we at Liberties are such hardliners on personal data protection, we are still using behavioural advertising to deliver our messages on Facebook. From where you most likely arrived. Firstly, we do not use RTB. Second, we are not criticising anyone who uses RTB to sell their products. We are criticizing those who set the industry standards, and we want them to comply with the laws, which at present, as far as we can tell, they aren’t doing.

Those of you who have a very strong moral compass might say that while we are not criticizing the businesses and organisations that use RTB to sell their products or ideas, the natural conclusion of our arguments is that they are indeed morally corrupt, for by participating in it companies are maintaining a morally corrupt practice. Thus the only thing you can do to preserve your moral integrity as a business, or as an organisation like Liberties is total abstinence. No RTB, no Facebook targeted advertising, nothing of this sort.

But keep in mind that this is not a particularly good moral argument. The real world is messy. Sometimes things that are bad at first sight are exactly the right thing to do all things considered. If you are, for example, a business that sells environmentally conscious products, for the love of God, please don’t shoot yourself in the foot and cause yourself a competitive disadvantage by not using behavioural advertising. Use it for now. But while you are doing that, do fight for a world where businesses do not need to use such advertising to stay competitive and people’s personal data is kept safe.

This is exactly what we are doing too.