It’s worse than you thought. That should have been the title of the talk Journalists’ Rights at Protests hosted last week the San Francisco Bay Area Journalists with Committee to Protect Journalist internet advocate Geoffrey King and journalist Ali Winston. King covered some much needed digital security for journalists, much of which is in this CPJ guide. Hopefully SFBAJ will post some more details from the discussion as well.
On the way home I made a to-do list for myself starting with clearing cookies, cache and so on. That may explain the results of an experiment that was part of a class I’m taking “Understanding the Media by Understanding Google.” Students were supposed to log the advertisements that popped up with search results on 20 sites. We had been reading about Google’s use of data to fuel the $50 billion in annual revenues collected last year. All but 5 percent comes from advertising and it all hinges on our data even though Google has been wildly successful here in maintaining its start-up, “do no evil” veneer that lets us forget the whole arrangement.
I’ve written about surveillance but for me there were two important discoveries in this experiment. 1. How much advertisers/Google were making ads appear to be regular content. 2. The opacity of sites that appear to be information hubs whose business model is identical to Google: profiting from the data they collect. See Goodreads and FixYa.com for examples.
Change.org sells online petitions instead of ads but the model is the very same. I found the site after noticing a fake poll about ACA on the home page of a news organization paid for by a front group Coalition to Protect America’s Health Care. Google returned a link to Change.org when I searched for the group’s name. I opened the link and scrolled down to the bottom to check for a link to information about advertising and sure enough there it was. Then I looked at the petitions listed under the coalition and not surprisingly found they were “sponsored” by the group, meaning paid for. I’m not sure yet whose money is behind the coalition but they appear to be pro-ACA. (That can be tricky though because the insurance industry was pro-ACA publicly even while using front groups to attack it privately. It pays to check carefully.) Even MoveOn.org gathers data about us and advertises on third party sites but is a different beast than Change.org. The latter is a business, the former a non-profit.
All this led me to Evidon, via tiny icons on some ads labeled “AdChoice”, a service used by many sites where one can opt out of data-targeted ads. Google and many other companies warn about opting out of allowing data to be gathered. In other words, you trade convenience of personalized search for control. It’s true to some extent. But I really don’t care about finely honed advertising delivered almost magically to me. That is good because many of the ads I logged seemed irrelevant to me, from luxury Jaguar models to cheap flights to Birmingham, Ala., and, from the New York Times, a questionable dietary supplement for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. I am not sure they would be any better if I hadn’t sanitized my browser data.
But from the Washington Post I got running shoes and Bay Area Chevrolet. The shoes could be appropriate although the ad seemed quite random and the car ad was based on geography and nothing else. Even though they were off target, those ads were more understandable than solar panels and gold coins. The closest anyone got was an ad for a Python GUI app builder generated from an email but it was very creepy because of the clear indication Google was scanning my email (it’s one thing to know another to see the proof). In contrast, news organizations were absent, which is strange given my profession and interests. The weirdest ad was for beef ravioli by Chef Boyardee on Yahoo. Seems completely bizarre except several years ago I looked up the history of the company bc the real chef Bioardi was from Piacenza, where my family lived in Italy in the 1950s, when we were considering visiting their old home.
That was even creepier than the email peeping.
At first it occurred to me that we have more rights to keep our digital content from the authorities than we do Google and the companies soaking up data about us. But then I remembered their privacy policies and that they are providing the digital content to the authorities with our consent.