Jeff Gelles: Altering the world we see

Penn media researcher Joseph Turow hopes to make consumers aware of how their innocent Internet browsing can be a gateway to advertisers.
Penn media researcher Joseph Turow hopes to make consumers aware of how their innocent Internet browsing can be a gateway to advertisers. (JEFF GELLES / Staff Photographer)

Beware the ways the Web can watch and guide you.

Posted: December 04, 2011

In the early days of the Web, one of the Internet's most celebrated visionaries - Nicholas Negroponte, founder of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab - touted the concept of "The Daily Me."

He saw great power in the idea that individuals could tailor the mix of news, information and entertainment they would see online every day. No longer would they be at the mercy of large media and entertainment conglomerates making all the key decisions for them.

Entrepreneurs have since created various versions of "The Daily Me" - most recently in apps such as Zite, a "personalized iPad magazine that gets smarter as you use it" which was just acquired by CNN. Yes, even large media conglomerates are trying to embrace the future.

But when University of Pennsylvania media researcher Joseph Turow looks back at Negroponte's vision, he sees another, and more troubling, sort of irony: that without our realizing it, large numbers of small pieces of information about us are being amassed by marketers and data miners, and being used in ways that subtly alter the world we see.

Today, the most obvious effect is in marketing. You may have noticed as you surf the Web how certain ads seem to follow you from site to site while you never stop to wonder how they got there.

For that matter, "targeted marketing" may be fine with you - it generally doesn't bother me. You may even have clicked "yes" to say you'd welcome ads that seem "more relevant" to your life.

But Turow doesn't see targeted marketing as entirely innocuous, and is especially concerned as its cousin, behavioral profiling, seeps out of the commercial realm. Already, he sees it affecting politics, where free and open exchanges are crucial to democracy, and coloring presentation of news and information by websites more focused on maximizing revenue than on journalistic impact.

Turow lays out his case for concern in The Daily You, published this month by Yale University Press - its name an unsubtle twist on Negroponte's sunnier vision of how data about people's interests and preferences can be used to their advantage.

But Turow's argument itself is a subtle one: He doesn't say personal profiles should never be used, and he recognizes that marketers have used similar data offline for decades. Mostly, he warns about the consequences if it's used without people's knowledge or understanding - something his book goes a long way toward advancing.

Helping politicians spin

How can behavioral profiling affect politics? Keep your eyes peeled next year, Turow says.

"Political database consultants will take 15 data points about you and assume you're a liberal or conservative" - data points such as the kind of vehicle you drive or the movies you watch.

With that knowledge, they can advise politicians how to spin themselves to voters who might be on the fence, or who agree with them about one thing and disagree about others. When you go to such a politician's website, the positions you see most prominently may be tailored to your viewpoints, while your predictable disagreements are pushed into the background.

Of course, information about you can also be misinformation. Some of us, such as academics and journalists, continually search the Web for professional rather than personal interests.

If I search "debt settlement," will I start getting targeted with debt-settlement pitches?

Turow says that's possible, but just part of the issue. Far more likely is that I'll see a constellation of ads or pitches targeted to me based on a rich, supposedly anonymous profile that's pegged to my computer's Internet address and assembled with innocently named tools such as cookies and Web beacons.

Nor do marketers need to know my name to serve me ads based on my browsing or other kinds of data linked to me - say, things I've purchased offline using a frequent-shopper card, or information I failed to protect when Facebook changed its privacy policies two years ago in ways that prompted a Federal Trade Commission investigation.

One company Turow describes, Rapleaf, has even promised that it can predict my behaviors - such as whether I'll make my mortgage payments on time - based on data about how my friends behave.

'Targets' and 'waste'

Turow, by the way, is hardly anti-advertising. He teaches about marketing at Penn's Annenberg School for Communication, and as a teenager even dreamt of becoming an ad copywriter. His book is a warning about where technology seems to be taking us: to a society where people are defined by profiles they don't even know are being built.

One result may seem like social discrimination against those pegged as down-market. It may be appropriate to send you ads for clunkers and send your boss ads for Maseratis, but it still may not feel good to you.

Another is price discrimination - the perfectly legal system of selling the same goods or service at different prices, because some customers are more valuable than others. Increasingly, Turow says, marketers are dividing people into two groups: "targets" and "waste."

Above all, Turow believes people should have a clear right and ability to opt out of online tracking, as well to learn what their profiles say and to challenge misinformation.

"I'm not saying all this stuff is terrible or that new technologies are bad for us," he says. Instead, he's saying "we have to be wary - and we have to speak up as citizens, not just as consumers, if we want our kids to live in a world that we'll be proud of."

Contact columnist Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or


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