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The Dark Side of Advertising: How Tech Giants Exploit User Data to Target Us with Algorithmic Ads

James Huang | 2023.06.19

For numerous years, I have been emphasizing the effects of the internet on advertising. The extensive use of the internet has enabled the systematic collection of user data, which has brought about a revolution in the advertising industry. However, it is essential to note that this change was never approved by law or public consensus; it was merely an opportunity seized by tech giants such as Google and Facebook, who quickly made it a de facto reality of our lives.

Before the advent of the internet, advertising was limited to targeting a specific audience through a particular newspaper, billboard, radio station, television program, or time slot. This kind of segmentation was, for many decades, the essence of how companies made decisions about multimillion-dollar investments and how they reached their potential customers. Even though they knew that they were wasting half their advertising budget — but didn't know which half — the equation was still clearly positive: their potential customers knew they existed and where to find them.

However, in the Google and Facebook world, everything we do is rigorously collected: our interests, socio-demographic characteristics, fears, sexual preferences, and even health problems, are no longer inferred from what we read, see, or where we go, but verified based on behavior that used to be private. But which is now constantly observed by others, without our consent, except by subjecting ourselves to social exclusion. The laws haven’t changed; instead, companies like Google or Facebook have manipulated them to do what they want.

Nowadays, advertising is presented to us based on what we comment, read, our “likes”, or any number of other variables we generate about ourselves. This gives rise to hyper-segmented advertising, which gives us the impression of being constantly watched, making us suspect that our devices are always spying on us. And in return, what? Do marketing directors genuinely believe they aren’t wasting half of their advertising budget? Who doesn’t know that this half of what they spend goes to the intermediaries who manage the system? Does what we have gained as a society — or what some have gained — genuinely justify being permanently spied on?

Furthermore, along comes the next spiral: algorithmically generated advertising. Algorithms making automated, instantaneous decisions about what we should see and which texts we should read, based on our past behavior.

The use of generative algorithms in advertising is a violation of every ethical code about the uses of this technology. However, nobody is going to try to stop this systematic misuse because these companies have many lawyers on their payroll and will fight to the bitter end to defend their right to spy on us ad nauseam and then place an automated sniper to hit us with their ads designed to make us click on them.

The advertising industry shall undergone a significant transformation with the rise of the internet and the tech giants that dominate it. The systematic collection of user data has made hyper-segmented, algorithmically generated advertising a reality. However, this change was never approved by public consensus or law, and it raises serious ethical concerns about privacy and the use of technology. As a society, we must consider whether the gains we've made from these advertising practices justify the cost of being permanently spied on.

The Dark Side of Advertising: How Tech Giants Exploit User Data to Target Us with Algorithmic Ads
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