Around every online corner, someone is trying to sell you something. Advertisements for Grammarly play before, during and after YouTube videos. Online shopping ads show up on social media, streaming platforms and message boards. These ads intrude our casual web browsing and interrupt our scrolls through news articles. Just now, I couldn’t look up a synonym for ‘intrude’ without seeing an ad for children’s Zyrtec — and I don’t have allergies nor do I have a kid.
Online ads are everywhere, but the fact that they subtract a couple seconds of my time has always been a minor inconvenience. For most of my life, I dismissed these ads as a normal part of existing half of any given day in front of a screen. But recently I’ve grown a little more skeptical. When I see a Zyrtec ad, I’m left wondering why I was shown their product.
If I’m browsing the web, and I click the little ‘x’ to close out a pop-up ad, Google replaces the image with two links: ‘Stop seeing this ad’ and ‘Why this ad?’ This second link opens a new tab in which Google explains that the ad was selected based off of “(My) activity on Google on this device.”
This sounds innocuous — at least Google would like you to think so.
I think of ads on television as veering into manipulative, but that’s different. Online ads are just there in the background. So what’s the issue?
Well, Google is keeping tabs on our online presences. Many of us take this notion in stride, swallowing our discomfort in exchange for the regular use of our technology, but I want to know exactly how the so-called “Tracking Industry ” came to be — especially because it might be on its way out.
In April of 2021, Apple introduced a pop-up window to their products in which users can “Ask App not to Track” their personal data. At first, I barely bat an eye at the release of this new feature. But now I realize it has massive implications for the future of the internet.
But before I looked to the internet’s future, I had to understand the past. I’m old enough to have grown up alongside the internet, but young enough to have never questioned why and how it’s always been there. To understand how the free online services I use, such as Google, are paid for, I dug into the story of the internet’s origins.
There is no singular answer as to who invented the internet as we know it today. Many individuals contributed to the technology that we are presently familiar with as ‘the web.’ Starting in 1966, The United States Department of Defense funded the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, which was one of the technological building blocks for the modern internet. Using this technology, information could be securely transferred between computers at Pentagon-funded research labs.
Access to the ARPANET grew in 1981 when the National Science Foundation funded network access for University computer scientists. At this point in time, what the NSF coined the ‘Computer Science Network’ was still intended primarily for communication among remote computers. By 1990, partnerships with corporations such as IBM and AT&T began the transition of ARPANET technology into the private sector.
Eventually, what was initially a technology intended for secure communication between computers at different locations ballooned into one of the most ubiquitous tools in human history: the internet.
In 1994, Lou Montulli created a way for websites to place a small file on every computer that visited the site, tracking their activity. He named this file the ‘cookie’. The ‘cookie’ turned the average internet user’s personal information into a resource. Companies could now take advantage of internet users’ online activity to market relevant products to them. These digital ads were the rocket fuel that shot the tech giants we’re familiar with today — Facebook, Google and Twitter — to the top of the digital food chain.
But now, the $350 billion digital ad industry is on thinner ice than ever. According to Sheri Bachstein, global head of IBM Watson Advertising and The Weather Company, “With all the changes happening in advertising with privacy, and identifiers and cookies being eliminated by the big tech companies, if all your revenue depends on advertising, that’s going to be challenging in the near future.”
It’s remarkable to think that the internet could undergo such a dramatic shift. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, makes more than 80% of its revenue from advertising.
Then again, it’s not uncommon for companies who provide an online service to make their money independently of digital advertising.
With personal data becoming more difficult to justify as a means to generate revenue for tech companies, subscription fees and other charges may become more commonplace on the internet. Services such as YouTube Premium may become the norm, wherein users pay a subscription fee in order to access an ad-free platform, or otherwise continue to use YouTube for free in exchange for constant advertising.
And there’s power in marketing. Ads become a part of our collective consciousness. If I asked someone how much fifteen minutes could save me on car insurance, they’d know. Nevertheless, digital ads might not be as effective as their creators think — like that Zyrtec ad I keep coming back to. I could speculate that Zyrtec picked up on some slight indication from one of my Google searches that I was looking for allergy medicine.
But the kicker is that I don’t know whether Zyrtec had my data or not, and that is concerning enough.
In theory, the targeting of ads based on a user’s expressed interests seems like an efficient way to get more people to buy more things. So it would seem counterintuitive that in 2018 when the New York Times ended its behavioral targeting in Europe, its advertising revenue did not decrease. Anecdotally, I rarely ever buy the products that are advertised digitally to me, even when they do fit my interests.
But the truth is, this isn’t about me. It’s about how much my data will sell for.
In 2014, when Cambridge Analytica obtained the Facebook data of tens of millions of users to ‘sell psychological profiles of American voters to political campaigns,’ the hashtag #DeleteFacebook started trending on Twitter. Herein lies the problem; When one online platform violated the privacy of its users, the public took to another online platform to criticize the first one. When we live our lives ‘chronically online,’ our data is always at stake.
Deleting Facebook doesn’t sound so bad, but deleting the internet is not an option. The vast reservoir of information available to me is like having a second brain. I’m constantly one firing of a motor neuron away from all the information I need.
So, as wary as I am of corporations preying on my data, I’m equally aware that using the internet requires individual action on my part to protect that data. Knowing which companies I can trust with my information and which I cannot make all the difference for a secure interaction with the world wide web.
At the end of the day, data privacy will win me over faster than any online ad ever could.
Statement Columnist Connor O’Leary Herreras can be reached at email@example.com.