The evils of online targeted advertising


Social media users would have experienced highly personalised advertisements popping up on their screen every time they use the internet. Poorvi Bose tells us how target advertising is blatantly invading the privacy of online users, and calls for stricter laws to protect the privacy of online users.

For any business to sustain, advertisements are a guaranteed way to attract consumers. All of us have noticed ads, either on television, newspapers, magazines, radio or roadside hoardings. All these are traditional forms of advertising, which are universal. Advertisers aren’t aware of their audience. It could be women, men or children, from any part of the country, with varying interests. With the onset of the digital age, businesses are forced to find better ways to make profits. Websites, social media platforms and businesses today display ads catered accurately to an individual, based on information like gender, age, location, likes and dislikes, online history and behaviour. This is called targeted advertising.

Invading the privacy of users

Today all of us use the internet for work, research, online shopping or leisure. When we go on the internet we observe extremely personalised ads popping up. For example, if you have booked tickets through an online service to another city or country, for the next few days or even weeks, you will observe ads of tourist attractions of that place. It could be about hotels, restaurants, tourist or shopping places or even transport within the city there. Or if you shop online one day, you will see ads for similar products for next few days. These are targeted ads based on your online history.

How does this happen? Big tech firms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc., collect data of their users and keep track of their online history and behaviour. This helps them create better predictive products which they later sell to ad tech firms. These firms create ads specific to a set of people and display it to them on their social media feed or websites they visit. The reason behind such targeting is that the more relevant the ad is to an individual, the higher is the probability of them clicking it. Tech firms are making huge profits from selling this users’ data. Google made a revenue of $134 billion in 2019 just from its advertising business. This helps them provide free services like Google services and social media platforms.

But one question arises from all this, “Who gave them the permission to use our information?”. This type of data collection is a blatant invasion of a user’s online privacy. When we download apps on our phones or sign up for accounts on various social media platforms, we are provided with lengthy pages of terms and conditions. Rarely does a person read it in detail. Adding on to this, there are legal jargons and technical terms included in these pages, which a common person would find hard to understand. Consequently, one clicks on the “I accept” button without understanding what they have consented to. This type of consent is not explicit but is a tacit consent since the person is not fully aware about it.

Ad tech giants like Google, Facebook and others try to get away with it by saying that it is being done to create more personalised products and customising services based on one’s needs. But this is at very high cost to the users. There have been numerous instances where this data collection has not only invaded people’s privacy but even lead to discrimination against some communities. In 2016, Facebook was accused of allowing advertisers to show housing ads to only some communities and not to other like ‘women who wear hijabs’, ‘Puerto Rico islanders’ and ‘foreigners’. YouTube was fined $170 million for collecting information about children and displaying ads to them via children’s videos in 2019. This data was being collected without the consent of their parents or guardians.
Another example is that of Google’s Street View, a feature available for Google users where one can see a 360-degree view of the place that they have typed in Google Search. One can visit art galleries, walk through roads, walk along a beach or sit by a river with just their phone even though they are miles away from that place. Google had started recording photographs and videos of these places by using a vehicle or a man equipped with a large camera in his backpack. But what they never sought was the consent of people staying in these places. Houses, cars and even people have been photographed and become permanent parts of the internet through this feature, without securing their permission.

One of the biggest internet scandals involving the Cambridge Analytica firm and Facebook finally opened people’s eyes to the loose privacy policies of many social media platforms and tech firms. A type of targeted ad that used behaviour modification techniques was displayed to voters of USA before the general elections of 2016. By understanding a person’s online identity and personality, researchers can create ads that might help change their behaviour which would in turn result in a change in their votes. It is alleged that these types of ads were even used in India for state elections in Bihar.

A law to protect your privacy

Policy makers and researchers all over the world have now realized the power these few tech giants hold over nearly the entire population. The known uses of this data collection are targeted advertisements, personalised products and services. But these ads also have the power to change people’s behaviour. Since it has entered politics and our daily lives, countries have begun to make laws to protect their citizens’ online privacy. The European Union has come up with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which has been one of the most successful laws in this field. States of the US are creating laws catering to their states respectively.

India has recently introduced The Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 in the Lok Sabha. This is a modified version of the Personal Data Protection Bill 2018 created by the Justice B.N Srikrishna Committee. The Bill details the rights of the authorities and the citizens and even specifies the penalties upon breaking the laws. Stricter laws are needed to keep in check with evolving technologies and still protect our online privacy.

Poorvi Bose

Poorvi Bose is an Electronics Engineer and a Teach for India fellow, Poorvi Bose is presently pursuing her Master’s in Public Policy for NLSIU Bangalore.