Digital media go way too far in collecting personal information and using it to target ads. It’s not good for people and, incidentally, it’s not good for broadcasting, which can’t compete with the likes of Google and Facebook in the Big Data game. A privacy law banning digital media from profiling their users is unlikely, but tough regulations that limit it may be possible.
Now that we are deep in this magical season, it’s time to unveil my wish for broadcasting in 2018.
I wish that Congress would pass legislation that would make it illegal for media companies of any kind to collect personal information about consumers.
If enacted, the measure would return to consumers some measure of privacy that they’ve had stripped away by the digital revolution and it would all but eliminate targeted advertising. You can’t target an ad if you can’t pick out the target.
Kinda radical, isn’t it?
But think about it. Right now, broadcasters are losing out because they have relatively little idea of who’s watching their shows, while digital media like Google and Facebook can know more about me than my closest friends and can funnel ads to me based on that knowledge.
The legislation — I’ll call it The Media Consumer Privacy Act — would immediately erase that advantage and put broadcasting on the same playing field.
I know that broadcasters are currently working on data collection and ad targeting. They’re among the promises of ATSC 3.0, the new broadcast standard that the FCC just said they could start rolling out.
But, even if all goes extraordinarily well, it will take years before there are enough 3.0-enabled sets in homes to yield the kinds of data that the digital media have.
And because the digital media are always getting better at profiling their users, broadcasters will never catch up. They will always be lagging behind in the never-ending Big Data arms race.
Who would oppose the legislation other than the data-obsessed media and marketers?
Certainly not the plain folks.
I’ve read about marketers and advertisers who try to sell the idea that ad targeting is good for consumers. Without really knowing it, the pitch goes, consumers have been quietly pining all these years for ads attuned to their interests and habits. They will happily accept ads if they’re touting stuff they covet.
My guess is that people don’t want any ads, any more than they want to pay tolls on the Garden State Parkway, stand in line to renew their drivers licenses or prepare their own income taxes.
If such legislation were actually introduced, I have no doubt that it would be easier to rally public opinion for it than against it.
I loathe being targeted, even in the rudimentary way it is done in broadcasting.
CBS knows that mostly old people watch its evening newscast despite their current attempt to make it hipper with Jeff Glor and app-like graphics.
So, they sell the ads to purveyors of old-people products, mostly drugs. They don’t give me valuable information on what I should do if I get ill; they make me ill.
I’ve been watching broadcast TV my entire life. I suppose you would call me a TV native. I mostly do not mind the implicit trade off — news and entertainment for my weary attention during the commercial breaks — but I would prefer to get the ads for the general audience, the ones pitching beer, fast cars and the latest movies.
I don’t see any unintended downside for broadcasting in my proposed legislation.
Marketers have to advertise. And if they have to do it mostly blindly as they did in the pre-internet days, they will. The great and powerful consumer economy of the United States was built despite the famous lament of retailer and pioneer marketer John Wanamaker: “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
And the case for the legislation goes far beyond just leveling the playing field for broadcasters. People deserve privacy, even though they are inclined to fritter it away for the slightest convenience. It’s one of those things that you don’t think about until government or business, in league with the media, decides to use what they know about you in a malicious way.
In her book Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil blasts digital media for enabling predatory ad-targeting practices, especially by for-profit schools that seem especially adept at them.
Ads aimed at uneducated people desperate for a foothold in the economy generate the leads, she writes. Promising a “false road to prosperity,” recruiters on the phone with government loan applications close the deals. The marks end up with little except “mountains of debt.”
And Big Data and ad-targeters cannot be good for the republic.
With their detailed knowledge of voters, political marketers before every election will tell different stories to different voters, driving ever deeper the wedge between red and blue, urban and rural, rich and poor, Trump and anti-Trump.
But aren’t advertisers entitled to some idea about what they are paying for?
The legislation would allow media to collect and use only the data that has traditionally been collected — age and gender. The marketers will grumble about returning to such crude measures, but, as I said, where else are they going to go?
They would also be free to conduct voluntary surveys of consumers to gauge their likes and dislikes and correlate that with the programs they watch and digital media they use — just as they do now.
Don’t look at this as a regression in media and marketing. Look at it as progress in personal privacy.
OK, I admit that this wish is a pipe dream and that there is not enough magic in any season to make it come true. You cannot undo technology and, as a political matter, you cannot disrupt powerful industries to the degree this legislation would.
But what if I narrow my wish to a law that significantly limits the personal information that digital media can collect and how they can use it? That sounds doable.
The resulting regs would protect the public to some extent and, incidentally, give data-challenged media like broadcasting a better chance to compete. That’s a win-win from where I sit.
Concerns about the digital invasion of privacy have been mounting. Just this week, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, still heard in Democratic policymaking circles, said in a blog post that it’s time to stand up to Big Tech outfits like Facebook and Google, charging that they have “become the most valuable companies in the world by hijacking and selling something that isn’t theirs — the intimate and personal information about how we live our lives.”
If such a regulatory push comes, broadcasters will have to consider whether they want to get deeply involved, but, if they don’t, they would be smart to at least cheer it on.