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Here’s an idea: How about showing us the data that was used to target us with online ads

Requiring such data might remind consumers of the real cost to them of using “free” services like Facebook.

Here’s an idea: How about showing us the data that was used to target us with online ads
[Photo: Halfpoint/iStock]

Browsing YouTube on Wednesday night, I just happened to click on a trailer for the new horror flick Hereditary. The movie looks promising, so I ended up watching a couple of trailers for it.

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On Thursday I found one of the trailers autoplaying in a sponsored ad in my Twitter feed, and I very rarely see ads for random movies in my feed. Naturally I wondered if I was being retargeted based on my views of the trailers on YouTube. It’s very possible, and also very difficult to find out for sure. Why don’t I get to know this?

That’s the problem with “free” services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They aren’t free. They show you all the benefits they provide but they hide the costs—the use of your personal data.

[Screenshot: Mark Sullivan]
That Hereditary ad gave me an idea. When I go to my Amazon VOD page, there’s a row of movie suggestions the company’s algorithms think will match my tastes. Just above the row of movies there’s a line of text that tells me the personal data that was used to target me. It might read: “Because you enjoyed Spaceballs . . .”

While Amazon targets me with movie content, Facebook and Google target me with ad content. These advertising giants should be required to label ads on their networks with the personal data used to target the ads, and the origin of that data.

If an ad was targeted based on basic demographic information collected about the user by Facebook, the ad should say so. If an ad was targeted based on some snippet of information inside the user’s Gmail, the ad should say so.

If the government wants play a role in protecting consumers from surveillance-based companies like Facebook and Google, this is a simple and clearly defined way of doing it.

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Facebook just started telling us a lot more about political ads

Requiring the targeting data label on ads is just a simple way of bringing the shadowy business of data collection and ad targeting into the light of day. If Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are sure that there is nothing wrong with harvesting users’ personal data to place ads, they should have no problem with being completely open with consumers about the real costs of the “free” service their company provides.

At Facebook there’s some precedent, after all. In its current post-2016 election forgiveness-seeking posture, the social giant has already decided to require political ads on its platforms to bear the name and location of the ads’ originator.

Internet advertisers may complain that ad targeting is a complicated business and that the targeting of one ad may rely on many pieces of user data. Well, so be it. The drug companies probably weren’t wild about being required to publish all those possible drug side effects in the small print of their direct-to-consumer ads, but they did it, because the public had the right to know.

Arming consumers with this kind of information would help them understand just how much of their personal data has already been pulled into the massive data economy. It may have the long-term effect of making them more frugal about spreading their data around.

We shouldn’t give in to the world Zuckerberg, Sandberg, and others envision where there’s simply no personal data privacy left and no need for any. Bullshit. A better answer is to educate consumers on the idea that they are the owners and stewards of their personal data, which has real value.

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