Per­ils of on­line mar­ket­ing

A law­suit over dis­crim­i­na­tory job ads could have pro­found im­pli­ca­tions for the likes of Face­book and Google

The Guardian Weekly - - Contents - By Mar­tin Moore MAR­TIN MOORE IS THE AU­THOR OF DEMOC­RACY HACKED

In Septem­ber, a group of peo­ple search­ing for work in the US filed charges against Face­book and 10 other com­pa­nies for dis­crim­i­nat­ing against women by tar­get­ing cer­tain job ad­ver­tise­ments only at men. The em­ploy­ers, from sec­tors such as labour­ing and lorry driv­ing, had used Face­book’s ad-tar­get­ing tools to di­rect the op­por­tu­ni­ties at those they thought most suit­able – and this did not in­clude women. Al­though the out­come of the case has not yet been de­cided, it could – along with sim­i­lar cases – have a seis­mic im­pact on the fu­ture of dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing and, con­se­quently, on the fu­ture of the net.

Al­le­ga­tions of dis­crim­i­na­tion have been made against Face­book’s ad­ver­tis­ing be­fore. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Pro-Publica and the New York Times at the end of last year found that dozens of em­ploy­ers had used the plat­form to tar­get job ads at par­tic­u­lar age groups, mean­ing that those out­side those ages did not see them. Around the same time, the Wash­ing­ton state at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice launched a sting op­er­a­tion, to show how straight­for­ward it was to use Face­book’s tar­get­ing tools to pre­vent cer­tain eth­nic groups from see­ing ads in the US: it placed 20 phoney ads for jobs, apart­ments, in­surance and other ser­vices and de­lib­er­ately ex­cluded one or more eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups from re­ceiv­ing the no­ti­fi­ca­tion.

When the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice pub­lished its find­ings ear­lier this year, Face­book said it would al­ter its sys­tems to pre­vent this kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion re­cur­ring.

But it is not just Face­book that has been ac­cused of dis­crim­i­na­tion. Tar­geted ads have also be­come cen­tral to Google’s busi­ness model: a Carnegie Mel­lon study in 2015 found that women were much less likely to be shown ads for higher-paid jobs.

Face­book has dis­missed the lat­est charges, say­ing: “There is no place for dis­crim­i­na­tion on Face­book; it’s strictly pro­hib­ited in our poli­cies.” It has also adapted its tools when abuses have been re­ported in the past.

But even if Face­book es­capes these charges, they are un­likely to end here. In­deed, there are likely to be more – lots more. This is be­cause dis­crim­i­na­tion, in its lit­eral sense, lies at the heart of tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing. To dis­crim­i­nate means to se­lect or dis­tin­guish based on iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ter­is­tics. Or, as the Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary puts it, “the power of dis­crim­i­nat­ing or ob­serv­ing dif­fer­ence”. Tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing, which has come to be the dom­i­nant form on­line, gives ad­ver­tis­ers the power to dis­crim­i­nate based on any one of a num­ber of iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as age, gen­der, lo­ca­tion, be­hav­iour; in­ter­est-based tar­get­ing is also an op­tion.

Tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing is to Face­book what fae­ces is to the dung beetle – its liveli­hood and its nour­ish­ment. David “Doc” Searls, who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on the prob­lems of dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing, calls Face­book “a ma­chine built for tar­get­ing”, adding, “Face­book doesn’t so much al­low ad­ver­tis­ers to dis­crim­i­nate against groups, it is de­signed to do ex­actly that.”

Should tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing be found to be in­her­ently dis­crim­i­na­tory, the risk to Face­book, Google and the panoply of dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing com­pa­nies is huge. Dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing, or “ad tech”, has be­come the dom­i­nant way in which com­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices, news and in­for­ma­tion on the web are funded. Face­book, and its prog­eny In­sta­gram and What­sApp, rely on dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing for more than 95% of their in­come. Google Search, Chrome, Google Maps and Gmail are all fi­nanced by dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing.

The in­flu­ence of dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing goes much fur­ther than the Google-Face­book du­op­oly. Google ad­ver­tis­ing is in­te­grated to more than 14m sites across the web (in­clud­ing the Guardian). More than 6m ad­ver­tis­ers use Face­book. Dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing is the goose that laid Google and Face­book’s golden egg. Were it to be found to be in­trin­si­cally dis­crim­i­na­tory, that could un­der­mine to­day’s dig­i­tal econ­omy.

While this might be a fright­en­ing prospect for the tech gi­ants, and for those who have be­come de­pen­dent on dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing, it could be

very healthy for pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety. It was ad tech that al­lowed Rus­sia’s In­ter­net Re­search Agency to tar­get in­flam­ma­tory and di­vi­sive mes­sages at more than 126 mil­lion Amer­i­cans dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Ad tech in­cu­bated a cot­tage in­dus­try of peo­ple in­vent­ing news purely for the sake of clicks and views. It also in­spired a sys­tem of ma­chine-driven per­son­alised pro­pa­ganda that makes all pre­vi­ous pro­pa­ganda ef­forts seem tech­no­log­i­cally rudi­men­tary. And ad tech re­lies on be­havioural track­ing, which only works if done at a phe­nom­e­nal scale – and which is in­her­ently opaque.

Con­stantly in­tru­sive per­sonal track­ing is es­sen­tial to ad tech. This is how Face­book, Google and oth­ers con­vince ad­ver­tis­ers that they can reach who they want, when they want. When you are next read­ing a news ar­ti­cle on the web, check to see if you can see a lit­tle Face­book “like” sym­bol on the page. That is not there merely so that you can tell your friends you like the ar­ti­cle, but to al­low Face­book to flesh out your pro­file for ad­ver­tis­ers.

Still, at least you can see the lit­tle Face­book sym­bol. Any web­site can add the Face­book pixel – a pixel that is in­vis­i­ble to the hu­man eye. More than 2m have and it al­lows them to track

Con­stantly in­tru­sive per­sonal track­ing is es­sen­tial to ad tech

users who come to the site and tar­get them with ads once they leave.

Google is sim­i­larly voyeuris­tic. Google An­a­lyt­ics en­ables or­gan­i­sa­tions to mea­sure the traf­fic to their web­sites, while feed­ing Google the in­for­ma­tion it needs to tar­get ads. A 2016 study of ad-track­ing tech­nol­ogy found Google An­a­lyt­ics on al­most 70% of the top 1m web­sites. When you visit any of these sites, Google knows you are there and can tai­lor ads to you.

It was not al­ways this way. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google, they wanted to dis­tance them­selves from ad­ver­tis­ing. Ad­ver­tis­ing had, they said, cor­rupted other search ser­vices. Google would be dif­fer­ent: it would keep ad­ver­tis­ing at arm’s length. Over time, to keep im­pa­tient in­vestors from the door, it started to use rel­e­vant key­word ad­ver­tis­ing to sup­port Google Search.

Then it re­alised it could ex­tend rel­e­vant ad­ver­tis­ing to sites across the web. A few years later it started to serve the ban­ner ads you see across the top of web­sites. Each time it spread its ad­ver­tis­ing em­pire, it moved fur­ther along the road of scale, au­toma­tion and track­ing, so that it could help ad­ver­tis­ers grab your at­ten­tion.

Next time you are read­ing news on­line, jump from the site you are on to one that is much less well known, per­haps one with whose pol­i­tics you dis­agree. See the ads around the page? They are there to reach you. Face­book, Google and other ad tech play­ers will do all they can to show that they do not dis­crim­i­nate. When they are caught red-handed, they will adapt their ser­vices, mute cer­tain cat­e­gories, en­large the size of the groups that ad­ver­tis­ers are able to tar­get and make it eas­ier to di­rect ads us­ing al­ter­na­tive cri­te­ria.

Yet, even­tu­ally, it will be­come clear that at its core, tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing en­ables dis­crim­i­na­tion. Once this is widely ac­knowl­edged, then the sys­tem will have to be­come less dis­crim­i­na­tory and less opaque and – from ad tech’s per­spec­tive – will be­come less ef­fec­tive. Then many sites may need to search for al­ter­na­tive meth­ods of fund­ing and per­haps we will find a bet­ter and health­ier way to fund the dig­i­tal econ­omy. One can but hope.

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