John Oliver is right: Data brokers can be creepy and consumers deserve better


Diving into a well-researched expose on the seedy internet data economy and why the future may be brighter than John thinks

I often find myself nodding along with John Oliver’s in-depth reports on issues of importance that have a tendency to fly under the radar.

His takedown of data brokers on a recent episode of This Week Tonight with John Oliver was no exception. This is in spite of BRIDGE actually being in the data brokerage business.

Let me explain.

The sad fact is nothing in John’s report was wrong. For more than two decades, literally thousands of companies have lurked behind the online content we access. You can almost picture them rubbing their grubby hands together ready to track us ‘til the cows come home. Heck, they’d probably try to track the cows too, if they could.

John’s segment showed locations being tracked, careless “masking” of data that led to the actual people tied to it being easily identified, and the practice of making real-time inferences made about private matters like pregnancy. Scariest of all was the reality of risks to the most vulnerable among us who prefer to remain totally anonymous for a variety of personal reasons.

It is hard to argue with the seriousness of the issues raised.

There is a silver lining though. As John says in the segment, these practices form part of the foundation that the internet economy was built on. What is not discussed, however, is just how much this foundation has been crumbling recently.

Let’s start with tracking. So much of what John talks about relates to cookies. We’ve not been shy about expressing our distaste for the cookie game. The fact is, though, it’s a dying game, with those sticking around increasingly at risk for crossing the bounds into illegality.

Location tracking? That’s largely a smartphone game with info scraped by scrupulous apps like free flashlights and sold to whoever’s buying. To their credit, Apple and Google have gotten much better about cracking down on these types of apps and even proactively alerting users when apps they’ve given permission to are tracking them.

Real-time ads served based on internet searches are annoying, but honestly, probably less nefarious. As we’ve discussed previously, we don’t see a whole lot of value in the “inferences based on recent searches” game. For most consumers, though, it’s an annoyance versus a massive invasion of privacy. The biggest challenge on this front comes when those inferences can be tied to real people.

Which brings us to the part about protecting the most vulnerable among us. This is one of the primary reasons consumers need to be empowered to hit a nuclear button that opts them out of everything they’ve ever consented to, for any reason.

In the U.S., steps have been made toward this via state initiatives like the California Consumer Privacy Act. Other states are enacting similar laws. These are all good for the consumer.

They are also good for all of the legitimate data brokers in the world who don’t just play by the legal rules, but also go to great lengths to remain on the right side of the ethics and privacy lines being redrawn globally today.

That’s the side BRIDGE plays on. For what it’s worth, we are proud not to fit the description of the types of companies with practices that formed the basis of John Oliver’s report.

That means, we:

  • Never track location and rely only on postal address info.
  • Don’t make real-time inferences about consumers to market to them.
  • Don’t do anything “in the background.” Consumers actually have to proactively give permission to be part of our audience.
  • Make it easy for people who previously gave permission to opt out of every campaign we’ll ever run. We’ll even take “remove” requests via the CCPA for consumers that don’t actually live in the state.

Look, advertising is key to the internet economy. People want free stuff and marketers want to reach the people who want the free stuff.

It’s actually a very fair system. So long as there’s full transparency about how it works, consumers aren’t exploited and they have full control over how their data is used.

That’s the position we’ll continue to take. If you’re a marketer and feel the same way, let’s talk!

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