Last week Google announced that they were abandoning third-party user tracking across their ecosystem. This adds short-term confusion to an already confused debate, but as far as the big picture of behavioral tracking on the internet, a lot of trends have been indicating that a rethinking is in order. Ultimately this is less about what we can use technology for, and more about what we should use technology for.
I don’t believe the recent announcement was a shock to those who were paying attention. Apple has been using privacy as a cudgel against Google and Facebook in its marketing, and chunks of the market were already heading in this direction. Workarounds were being found and alternatives proposed, but the writing was on the wall. Users have become more aware of how the advertising ecosystem works, and they don’t like it.
Many in the industry have commented that the reaction against targeting is in many ways self-inflicted. People do want to see ads that are more relevant to their lives; they just don’t want to feel abused. The fact that we even use the term “targeting” shows a certain lack of empathy. I mean, how many people, in any context, would say they want to be targeted?
People have been talking about this for a long time. In the mid to late 90s, people like Phllip Greenspun claimed that cookies will be the death of privacy on the internet. It took a couple of decades, but this issue has finally come to the forefront. What seems to have happened is two things:
Just as personalization was becoming more obviously effective, people started to understand just how much value they were giving away for free. The increasing visibility of how your intentions and behavior are used, combined with the realization of just how much money people were profiting off of it, is an explosive combination.
Looking at the state of discourse on the internet today, it’s clear that something has gone very, very wrong with how we’re using data. If we use behavioral personalization to crudely boost engagement, we see that what people really respond to is a never ending stream of content confirming their preexisting biases and stoking outrage. I hardly imagine myself immune. But while this is clearly what we respond to, is it really what we want?
Removing third party cookies isn’t going to change all that’s wrong with the internet, of course, but maybe we can take this moment to approach our response with a little humility. I do believe that people really do prefer helpful, relevant messaging. Contextual analysis will be part of technology forever, and we’re pretty soon going to get past the annoyance phase of it. Google’s announcement isn’t going to break the ad industry, and it’s not going to mean going back to the days of seeing ads for X10 cameras. We should remember that for all the problems that technology causes, it’s also very good at solving them. If we think of this not as a technical obstacle to overcome, but instead as a call to civic responsibility, perhaps more than a little good can come of it.