The media industry has unquestionably been transformed by advertisers' ability to collect data at the individual level about internet users and use it to design more effective ad campaigns. Here, Joseph Turow claims that the way individual-level data has transformed this media-buying process has been hidden except to a few industry insiders. The Daily You offers a nice description of how online advertisers now track internet users across websites in order to offer ads that they hope will be relevant and thus effective.
Turow is at his strongest when he describes, in careful but still accessible language, what media firms are doing and the technical details behind how they collect data. I particularly enjoyed his description of the inadvertently harmful effects of personalising news content. The fear is that by over-personalising news, newspapers inadvertently create "data silos" where someone who has not yet shown an appetite for international news will never have the chance to be exposed to it. This is something that deeply concerns Turow, a professor of communications, and his passion shows.
Sometimes, however, The Daily You oversimplifies. For example, Turow describes the actions of the media company M6D in a way that implies that it knows the identities of the users it targets. But one of M6D's founders, Foster Provost, a professor at New York University, has spent his career developing targeting systems based on shared patterns of web browsing that explicitly keep data anonymous, avoiding any collection of personally identifiable information, therefore protecting people's privacy. This innovativeness should be applauded rather than being lumped together with companies that have made less vigorous efforts to protect privacy.
One novel argument Turow presents is that the growth of Google has spurred the huge increase in data-collection efforts; Google Search ads offer such a great "targeting" opportunity for advertisers that other web publishers have had to greatly improve how well the advertising they offer is targeted. To an economist, increased competition leading to a better product and more innovation sounds like a good thing. To Turow, however, it is a bad thing. This example reflects something missing throughout The Daily You, which is more evidence about how users are harmed.
One thing that often baffles privacy experts is the so-called "privacy paradox": consumers often claim high levels of concern about privacy. But their actual online behaviour does not reflect these stated concerns, because most consumers seem to be willing to trade their privacy for a very slender gain - say, a free ringtone. Turow argues that consumers trade their privacy because they do not understand the consequences of doing so, but he finds it hard to express why the consequences are bad. He is right that poorer households may miss out on opportunities to be shown ads for Bentleys rather than Fords, but how seeing ads for Bentleys would benefit them remains cloudy, even as Turow recommends that the force of law should be used to require advertisers to send poorer households online ads for Bentleys now and then.
Numbers would help us to understand how often poorer people see ads designed only for poor people, or how often people see ads for potentially private categories such as weight loss or bankruptcy assistance, and whether they flock away from websites showing potentially creepy advertising as a result. If they are not flocking away, then perhaps, in practice, web users are more comfortable with the future world he describes than Turow is himself, and that their reputation is not, in truth, at much risk from being shown targeted advertising.
The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth
By Joseph Turow. Yale University Press, 288pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780300165012. Published 9 February 2012