EU Progress Against Surveillance Capitalism

Posted on January 7, 2023
Tags: privacy, EU, internet, advertising

Tim Lavoie

Some ideas spurred by fairly massive EU fines against Meta, as described here: Wired: “The Slow Death of Surveillance Capitalism Has Begun”

While it may not be an immediate hammer blow, I think this may finally result in some very interesting changes:

  • Giving people choice in how their data is used can show them that they can have a choice. For people who have grown up knowing only the Internet as it is, being spied on for the privilege of reading something is just the status quo. That things can be different will be a very new concept.

  • Some companies report minimal detectable impact on their bottom line after ditching surveillance-based (a.k.a. “personalized”) ads for their products. In other words, the actual customers in the snooping ad space are starting to notice that they, too, have some ability to choose where to spend their money.

  • This is of course different for the companies whose product is surveillance-based personalized ads. As mentioned in the Wired article above, Meta told investors around a year ago that Apple’s 2021 privacy change would cost them $10B USD per year.

  • When providing data to random sites on the internet starts to look more like opt-in, rather than the default, people may naturally want to be more specific about how they do so, and with whom they engage. That is, it is a very different feeling to share one’s information with a small business, or even a large one, at a granular level. The de facto standard today is that consumers share every damn thing with these giant corporations, which in turn sell ads based on that information, to businesses large and small.

  • Providers of internet content, currently dependent on this ad system, may start to realize that their own model needs to change. For instance, this alleged insight that the ad companies sell to their ad customers is the ability to reach those end consumers who might be interested in the products being sold. The consumer information is hoarded like a dragon’s pile of gold, it’s not like it is shared with the ad customer. This might drive interesting behaviour changes on the ad buyer’s side, such as making efforts to (re-) engage with their audience directly. Catering to the whims of the ad-tech giants, such as “search-engine optimization” or SEO, may start to appear less beneficial. For those unfamiliar with the term, SEO essentially refers to the myriad ways in which web sites try to game the system of algorithms used to order the results in searches conducted mostly by Google. Where the original design relied on the implicit value of links to a page by others on the Internet, SEO may worry much less about the value of the content, as long as Google highlights whatever content they choose to provide.

  • The existing ad markets support many businesses today, such as most of the sites that people think of as “free”. That is, they are supported by this implicit, and difficult to avoid, interaction with the ad giants. Uneven change means that some business models will fail to thrive, and perhaps, disappear.

Imagine the potential results from all of this. Perhaps the “free” model of content becomes less tenable, with structural changes in the EU (to start) causing ripple effects in ad prices globally. With data-sharing becoming opt-in, direct relationships with companies readers support might become more vital to their survival. Less may be available at zero monetary cost; what remains though, does because we choose to support them for giving us real value.

Those sites that provide no value, such as the SEO-spamming, content-cloning rip-offs, will have fewer pennies available, because they do nothing useful for the reader, and serve only to waste their time and attention.

When surveillance-based ads become less valuable to the tech giants selling them, their incentives change, because their business model will have to if rules become enforced. I don’t care whether Facebook exists for instance, but it cannot be a bad thing if they feel the need to sell more than their viewer’s eyeballs. If attention becomes less directly valuable to content sites, then the heavy “engagement”-driven formats may give way to those that satisfy something besides Pavlovian doom-scrolling.

Regarding attention, I would hope that those reading on the Internet might choose to do so more thoughtfully, based on having a little bit of skin in the game for the content they value.

I, too, consume “free” content, but I also subscribe to some I consider more useful in some fashion. I encourage others to do so as well. Find useful, local news providers. Find interesting podcasts, and follow them on Patreon or whatever they use. Hell, I hear OnlyFans um, has its fans. Support the people that make your brain whirr, instead of those that use what makes you tick, against you.