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How did this situation with data brokers happen?

by Brendan Roberts

Oct 25, 2022

A brief story of technological capability + legal ambiguity + predatory, self-serving behavior.

The Internet we all know and used to love was paid for with advertising. So much of the experience we get on the web is free as in no credit card required. We can read blog articles, research vacations, search wikipedia, and much more. There just might be ads down the side of the page. Most of us are ok with that.

But what started to happen after 2001 was that the ad companies saw that by putting their ads on multiple sites, they could identify who was viewing the ads, note what kinds of websites were being visited, and build profiles about people. We've all been there with searching for shoes on one site, then seeing ads for shoes everywhere we browse for the next month. This problem gets compounded when companies think about buying profiles from another ad company and merging the information together with what they already have. And they do this, many times over. Remember, you have no relationship with these companies. But they know thousands of things about you.

Sounds troubling. Is this ok? Well according to the law it was. Because until 2018 there were no laws. An ongoing feature of technology (not just Internet technology) is the willingness of people to forget ethical concerns when taking advantage of the technology. Would spying on people have been socially acceptable before there was an Internet? Absolutely not. But now machines are making it easy, and there is too much money to be made. So there we are.

And that brings us to self-serving, predatory behavior. It is a bit astounding that an entire industry exists, known as "data brokers", that primarily surveil people without their true awareness and sell that information to any and all bidders. If you ask, they have plenty of excuses such as claiming they do have your consent because you implicitly agreed to the terms of service on some web site you visited. Or that they are enabling highly tailored customer experiences for your benefit. Or, that everything is cheaper when companies don't have to spend a fortune advertising to everyone when they instead can target you. But unfortunately, all of this is build on a foundation of shady behavior.

The good news is that this state of affairs is changing. Laws are being enacted at a rapid pace, and there is growing awareness of the situation. Regular people have an opportunity to push back.

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