Are Targeted Ads a Good Thing?

At Liberties we realize that some of our readers have concerns with our #YourDataYourBusiness campaign that many other people may share. So we decided to run an “advocacy officer replies” article series. Read responses from our advocacy officer. Part 1.

“I like HCLU and its pages, but, as a matter of fact, I have come to know about HCLU first when Facebook’s algorithm threw an HCLU article to my timeline. I also like that when I search for a product and get a few further ideas on what I may want to buy through Google or Facebook ads. This is so much better than getting my mailbox flooded by paper advertising magazines. Those who want to live in the past should not use the products of Google and Facebook. This is the right to a free choice. I agree that it is bad when certain data of yours ends up in the wrong hands. For example, if you have very serious allergies and someone wants to kill you, it is enough if they place the material you are allergic to in your environment. But normally, the data we are talking about is anonymized. You are only a big alphanumerical identification number in other systems. Those who are advertising are targeting a group, and they do not know who exactly the people who see their offers are.” (A Facebook follower of HCLU, our Hungarian member organization, commenting on HCLU’s post about the #YourDataYourBusiness campaign.)

I think it is time for us to clarify certain issues. Although Google and Facebook are both profiling, this time we’re not asking Facebook to change its advertising practices. We are asking Google, and IAB, the organization representing the interests of the online advertising industry, to do so. Why is this the case? Do we believe that Facebook profiling is good, or at least acceptable, while Google profiling is not? Yes and no. I am pretty sure that we will have campaigns in the future asking Facebook to be more ethical and do the right thing when it comes to advertising. This is just not that campaign. The #YourDataYourBusiness petition is not about profiling, it is about data leakage. It is about not wanting our data to end up in the wrong hands.

Still, let me talk briefly about profiling. I personally love my Facebook ads. As I do not like wandering through shopping malls and I do not have a TV, I am pretty sure that I would have not been aware of the existence of that incredibly cute scratching post I now want to buy for Fritz, my cat, for Christmas. It is not that Facebook ads are not awesome. Indeed they are. The question is whether they are worth it.

Now, at Facebook they did introduce some measures to prevent data leakage to avoid a second Cambridge Analytica event. However, when it comes to off-Facebook online advertising, data still spills out, and we have absolutely no idea where it goes, and who uses or misuses it and in what ways.

Mind you, when it comes to misusing, the question is not only whether you as a person can be identified and then harmed in a very personal way. The information Google and IAB use when offering a bid request is pretty detailed, and someone who has enough resources and technical skills, may well be able to find you and misuse the information they got to know about your allergies. But very few of us have personal enemies willing to go this far. To my mind, the real question is whether you are prepared to live under governments put into power by authoritarian forces using the very data we are talking about. These data show them how to spread their lies efficiently, how to provoke fear and a feeling of insecurity in certain electoral districts, and whom to offer protection. I certainly do not want that to happen. I am happy that interesting ads pop up on my screen. But I am definitely not willing to pay for that with my democracy.

Google and IAB making it possible for thousands of companies I have never heard about to get my information is not only problematic from an ethical point of view. It is also illegal under the European data protection law (GDPR). We at Liberties are asking them to change their practices and acknowledge that your data is your business.

Join us and let Google and IAB know that you care and want them to stop stealing what is rightly yours. Your private life, your democracy.