In his New York Times article entitled “Who Do Online Advertisers Think You Are?” Jeffry Rosen examines the process of real-time bidding wherein companies compete to place advertisements on the webpages an individual visits. Rosen argues that this personalization of online content is harmful not only because it limits the resources to which one has access, but it also carries the risk of violating one’s privacy. Prior to the advent of the Internet, advertisers had to guess what media were the most effective ways of reaching their target audience. For example, they could pay to run a commercial during a television or radio program they felt their audience watched, or they could place a billboard at a location at which they thought their audience would be. Now, however, companies like BlueKai, an online data aggregator, are able to place cookies on a person’s computer and track that individual’s Internet browsing habits. With that data, they build a profile and classify that person. Online advertisers use this classification to decide whether the person is in their target demographic, and if they are, the company goes to an advertising exchange such as Google’s DoubleClick Ad Exchange and bids to place their ad in the webpages that individual views throughout the Web.
Illustration by Edward del Rosario
This tracking also extends beyond the online universe. Increasingly, mobile devices such as phones and tablets are being targeted by data aggregators. Because of the built-in GPS technology, they are able to pinpoint the physical location of people from these mobile devices and send them customized articles or special discounts based on where they are. These customer profiles have the potential to shape the advertising a person sees online, on television, and in the real world.
Many media experts find the practice of data aggregation and real-time bidding for ads to be a worrisome trend. BlueKai and similar aggregators classify a person based on their past interests, and that classification determines how much advertisers will value that individual. This could have the effect of marginalizing people of lower socioeconomic status because companies will only want to reach people from whom they can draw the greatest profit. Likewise, the classification can contribute to the “Internet bubble” effect we learned about in another reading this week by constantly surrounding a person with information they already like. They are never exposed to new information, limiting their online world.
There is also great potential for breaches in privacy. BlueKai insists that the profiles it builds are anonymous, but PaulOhm, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder believes that it would not be difficult to determine the identity of a person based on the vast quantity of data stored in those profiles, and this could lead to the exposure of some damaging or embarrassing facts about that person.
Jeffry Rosen is a law professor at George Washington University. He is also the legal affairs editor for The New Republic. As an academic writing an article for The New York Times, he had to make this complex, technical issue accessible to the general public who read the NYT. Rosen has also written articles for The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker and has appeared on National Public Radio, so he has extensive experience communicating legal issues to a varied audience. He has also published several books on topics like the Supreme Court and privacy on the Internet. The Los Angeles Times has named Rosen “the nation’s most widely read and influential legal commentator.”
After reading about online data aggregators, I was curious about what my digital footprint is. Therefore, I visited the website of BlueKai, the company Rosen singled out in this article. Anyone can view their profile on the BlueKai Registry and edit it. There is even the option to opt-out of their data collection program. This transparency is quite welcome. Anyone interesting in controlling their online privacy should take the time to see what online advertisers know about them.
- Rosen, Jeffrey. “Who Do Online Advertisers Think You Are?” New York Times 30 Nov. 2012.