The race to commercialize the Internet is over, and advertising is the big winner. This is excellent news if you are an executive or major shareholder of one of the handful of companies that dominate the $600 billion global digital advertising economy. For almost everyone else, advertising’s good fortunes have meant the erosion of privacy, autonomy, and security, as well as a weakening of the collective means to hold power accountable.
This is because the industry’s economic success is rooted in its virtually unrestrained monetization of consumer surveillance. Digital advertising technologies are widely distributed but largely operate under the control of a few giant companies whose monopoly-like market power has, among other ills, unleashed a wave of manipulative communication and deepened a revenue crisis among the nation’s most important journalism outlets. For the ownership class of Silicon Valley, digital advertising has been a gold mine of epic proportions. For democratic society, it is gasoline on a fire.
The deep problem is surveillance advertising: a business model based on persistent and invasive data collection. At its core, surveillance advertising uses data to try to find ever more effective ways to predict and influence people’s behaviors and attitudes. Of course, advertising is old; companies, politicians, and other groups have long been interested in knowing and influencing many kinds of publics. Today’s regime of surveillance advertising on the Internet is not so much a new development as an acceleration of long-standing social trends at the intersection of technology, marketing, politics, and capitalism at large.
That acceleration has been in the works for decades. Though widespread popular scrutiny of Internet tech companies has exploded only in recent years, the key moments in the historical construction of surveillance advertising unfolded in the mid-1990s, when the new technology of the World Wide Web was transformed from an outpost on the fringes of business to a central nervous system for commercial monitoring. To paraphrase Thomas Streeter, surveillance advertising is not something that happened; it is something that was done. In other words, the massive data collection infrastructure that undergirds the Internet today is the result of twenty-five years of technical and political economic engineering. Surveillance advertising was created by marketers, technology start-ups, investors, and politicians, a coalition bound by the desire to commercialize the web as quickly as possible. Through bouts of competition and collaboration, private and public sector interests steered digital networks toward maximizing their monitoring and influence capacities, tilling the soil for all manner of deceptive communication practices and wreaking havoc on less invasive media business models. The legacy of this period is the concentration of surveillance capacity in corporate hands and the normalization of consumer monitoring across all digital media platforms we have come to know today.
The political and economic roots of surveillance advertising are important pieces of a larger conversation about Internet companies and the power they wield in society. This conversation went mainstream in 2017 as journalists, tech workers, activists, and academics investigated and publicized a cascade of scandals coming from Silicon Valley. In what became known as the “techlash,” the world’s biggest Internet companies faced international public rebuke over controversies around gender discrimination, appalling labor conditions, lax data security, anticompetitive behavior, tax avoidance, addictive product design, algorithmic bias, and objectionable military contracts. Public opinion cratered as pollsters reported that “few Americans trust major tech companies to consistently do what is right.”
Facebook was at the epicenter of the techlash, especially following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the vitriol around the Cambridge Analytica and Russian disinformation scandals reflected a deeper complaint: the pervasive consumer surveillance at the heart of the Internet’s advertising business model was out of control. The large reserves of public goodwill that Facebook (now Meta), Google, and the like had enjoyed for much of their existence seemed to be running dry. Certainly these companies had faced criticism in the past, but the techlash was different in that it fostered more than disconnected, one-off condemnations of this or that shameful incident. A structural analysis began to take shape, particularly around the collective harms of business models based on surveillance advertising. As digital rights researcher-activist Nathalie Maréchal argued, microtargeted advertising “drives company decision making in ways that are ultimately toxic to society.” It was becoming widely obvious that consumer data collection was not simply about providing “relevant” ad messages, as ad platforms often claimed. “Their business depends on manipulating behavior,” wrote journalist Rana Foroohar. “It is a business model that causes endless collateral damage.” Even the creator of the World Wide Web weighed in. “We don’t have a technology problem,” said Tim Berners-Lee. “We have a social problem.”