Surveillance capitalism and targeted advertising have become the norm on the internet, and it's hurting all of us.
Dr. Nathalie Maréchal is a senior research fellow at Ranking Digital Rights, where she studies the impact of information and communication technology companies' business practices on human rights.
In his testimony to the US Senate last spring, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized that his company doesn't sell user data, as if to reassure policymakers and the public. But the reality—that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media companies sell access to our attention—is just as concerning. Actual user information may not change hands, but the advertising business model drives company decision making in ways that are ultimately toxic to society. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci put it in her 2017 TED talk, "we're building a dystopia just to make people click on ads."
Social media companies are advertising companies. This has never been a secret, of course. Google pioneered the targeted advertising business model in the late 90s, and Sheryl Sandberg brought the practice to Facebook in 2008 when she joined the company as chief operating officer. The cash was flowing in, and companies around Silicon Valley and beyond adopted the same basic strategy: first, grow the user base as quickly as possible without worrying about revenue; second, collect as much data as possible about the users; third, monetize that information by performing big data analytics in order to show users advertising that is narrowly tailored to their demographics and revealed interests; fourth, profit.