Towards transparency and privacy in the online advertising business

Cows, privacy, and tragedy of the commons on the web

Web firms may have an interest in pursuing the monetization of users’ data with some more moderation. If they don’t, privacy concerns as well as adoption of tracking and advertisement blocking tools could grow to a point where innovation will suffer.

As part of a recent keynote during the inaugural workshop of the Data Transparency Lab (Nov 20, 2014, Barcelona) I hinted that a Tragedy of the Commons around privacy might be the greatest challenge and danger for the future sustainability of the web, and the business models that keep it going.

With this post I would like to elaborate a bit more on what I meant and maybe explain why my slides are full of happy, innocent looking cows.

What is the Tragedy of the Commons

In the classical Tragedy of the Commons, individual cattle farmers acting selfishly keep releasing more cows onto a common parcel of land despite knowing that a disproportionate number of cows will deplete the land of all grass and drive everyone out of business. All the farmers share this common knowledge, but do nothing to avoid the impending tragedy. Selfishness dictates that it is better for a farmer to reap the immediate benefit of having more cows, diverting the damage to others and/or pushing the consequences to the future. The utopian outcome for each farmer is that he can keep accumulating cows without having to face the tragedy because, miraculously, others will reduce the size of their herds, saving the field from becoming barren. Unfortunately, everyone thinks alike and thus, eventually the field is overgrazed to destruction.

Are there cows on the Web?

There are several.

Not only in .jpeg, .gif or .tiff but also in other formats that, unlike the aforementioned compression standards, can lead to (non-grass related) tragedies. In my talk I am hinting on the following direct analogy between the aforementioned cow-related abstraction and the mounting concerns about privacy and the web.

Farmer: A company having a business model around the monetization of personal information of users. This includes online advertising, recommendation, e-commerce, data aggregation for market analysis, etc.

Cow:  A technology for tracking users online without their explicit consent or knowledge. Tracking cookies, analytics code in websites and browsers, browser and IP fingerprinting, etc.

Grass:  The trust that we as individuals have on the web, or more accurately, our hope and expectation that the web and its free services are doing “more good than bad”.

The main point here is that if the aforementioned business models (farmers) and technologies (cows) eat away user trust (grass) faster than its replenishment rate (free services that make us happy), then at some point the trust will be damaged beyond repair and users … will just abandon the web. As extreme as the last statement may sound, the reader needs to keep in mind that other immensely popular media have been dethroned in the past. Print newspapers are nowhere near when they used to be in, say, the 30’s. Broadcast television is nowhere near where it’s height in the 60’s (think the moon-landing, JFK’s assassination, etc.).

The signs of quickly decaying trust on the web are already here.

– More than 60% of web traffic was recently measured to be over encrypted HTTPs, and all reports agree that the trend is accelerating.

 AdBlock Plus is the #1 Firefox add-on in the Mozzilla download page with close to 20 million users. Other browser or mobile app marketplaces are heavily populated with anti-tracking add-ons and services.

–  Mainstream press is increasingly covering the topic on front pages and prime time, sometimes revealing truly shocking news.

–  Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are mobilizing to address privacy related challenges.

If ignored, the mounting concerns around online privacy and tracking on the web may lead to mass adoption of tracking and advertisement blocking tools. Removing advertising profits from the web probably means the end of free services that we currently take for granted.

The impact on innovation will be a second negative consequence. Last, lets not forget that advertisement and recommendation is something desired by most users, provided that certain red lines are not crossed.

What constitutes a red line may change from person to person but certain categories are safe candidates (health, sexual orientation, political beliefs).

In a recent study we have shown that it is possible to detect Interest-based Behavioral Targeting (IBT) and have delved into specific categories to measure the amount of targeting that goes on.

What can we do to avoid an online tragedy of the commons?

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant”

The famous quote of American Supreme Court litigator Louis Brandeis may have found yet another application in dealing with the privacy challenges of the web.

Despite the buzz around the topic, the average citizen is in the dark when it comes to issues relating to how his personal information is gathered and used online without his explicit authorization.

A few years ago we demonstrated that Price Discrimination seems to have already creeped into e-commerce. This means that the price that one see’s on his browser for a product or service may be different than the one observed at the same time by user in a different location.

Even at the same location, the personal traits of a user, such as his browsing history, may impact on the obtained price.

To permit users to test for themselves whether they are being subjected to price description we developed (the price) $heriff, a simple to use browser add-on that shows, in real time, how the price seen by a user compares with the prices seen by other users or fixed measurement proxies around the world.

Researchers at Columbia University and Northeastern University have, in a similar spirit, developed tools and methodologies that permit end users to test whether the advertisements or recommendations they received have been specifically targeted at them, or they are just random or location dependent.

Tools like $heriff and X-ray improve the transparency around online personal data. This has multifold benefits for all involved parties:

– End users can exercise choice and decide for themselves whether they want to use ad blocking software and when.

– Advertising and analytics companies can use the tools to self regulate and prove that they abstain from practices that most users find offending.

– Regulators and policy makers can use the tools to obtain valuable data that point to the real problems and help in drafting the right type of regulation for a very challenging problem.

Mooo, who needs more tragedy?

About the author
Nikolaos Laoutaris

Nikolaos Laoutaris | Telefonica

Leave a Reply