Data Collection: How the Web Commodifies Personality

Ever wondered why minutes after checking out a product on Amazon, you see an advertisement for the same product while watching a video on YouTube? Online advertising has come a long way since its birth almost a decade ago, but this development has not occurred through the hard work of marketing companies. It has been through data mining, data collection, and the buying/selling of this data between companies.

Many already knew that companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook were not as friendly and pure as their public images, but they have been profiting off the data that the customers have to provide to use their services, which are all but mandatory in this day and age. Search history from Google, purchases from Amazon, and personal information on Facebook are all categorized and sold to the highest bidder, which will probably use it to develop its own business and make a profit. This helps these behemoths make jaw-dropping profits. These trades are one of the main reasons why Facebook has become a $500+ billion giant, with Google amassing even greater of a value for itself, around $700 billion.

People often wonder how all of this sharing of private information is legal. It is because we all agreed to play by their terms, with the user agreements that we signed without reading. Those user agreements that are more than twenty pages, with many of them being longer than the constitution of the US, all permit the company to store and “utilize” our information. This is how Amazon keeps track of your product search history and then displays the product you were just looking at through ads on other websites, tracking you throughout the web.

The election process of Donald Trump allowed both the general populace and the government to notice the issue when it was discovered that the Russians displayed ads that promoted Trump throughout Facebook to the appropriate people, thanks to the data collection and data analysis systems that are in place. However, up until now, the government has not done anything to restrict the access that Facebook and like companies have to users’ private information, warning them to regulate themselves. Even though some people believe that an act like meddling with the election process and muddying the waters would mean that Facebook would start to crack down on its data collection process, that is not going to happen, and that is what scares a lot of people; ads that target people’s needs, desires or interests are much more different than the commodification and advertisement of politics, as politics should not ideally be affected by advertising. Though politics are already affected by marketing and artificiality, the internet should not push propaganda upon its users.

One might ask how the sale and collection of data affects a possible political process. This is where the frequency and content of the advertisement kicks in: as the user implies that they hold a specific political opinion according to their preferred sites and content, ads in accordance with the user’s beliefs will increase, reaffirming their thoughts. Or, conversely, the opposition might advertise more heavily, causing a user to doubt their own opinion by making them think that the opposition is the more popular and supported candidate. But really, it is just a matter of data collection, and the application of that data, through advertisements.

In the end, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other companies are all alike. They are businesses working for profit, and as their values increase, they will start to reach into new areas that they could exploit. For a long time, online advertising had been hard to profit off of due to the irrelevance of the products being shown and the convenience of ad-blocking extensions. Now with the trade of data, companies have been able to target more appropriate markets, increasing user engagement with ads and helping hosts increase profits. Companies will never give up a mechanic that helps them profit, no matter how intrusive it is.

One might ask who is buying their personal information, and why are they buying it? There are the usual large companies, such as Amazon, trying to perfect their advertising and reach a larger audience, but there are also new, up-and-coming companies that buy said information to gain knowledge of consumers and effectively target advertisements. For example, a company that wants to get into the clothing business could see the number of people that like the brands that they might plan on selling by buying sets of data from Facebook and see a possible development of their company by acquiring the purchase history regarding clothing from Amazon. Data collection, data mining and the transaction of these are what drives the formation and development of companies nowadays.

“There is no privacy on the internet” is a phrase that has been popping up in the last couple of years, and sadly it is true. As users, beyond accepting shady user agreements, we share our opinions, our feelings, and our image willingly. Nobody forces you to share a picture of your surroundings on Instagram, but a lot of people prefer to.

All of this is making it easier for companies to predict what our future interests might be and what we might be doing in the future. They say they are tailoring a personal web-browsing experience, getting rid of all the stuff that we are not interested in, and that is true, to an extent. We are in too deep to completely wipe away all of our private information from the web. However, we can prevent the manipulation of the masses by advertisements and well-placed propaganda by protesting for the regulation of what is done with the data held by the companies. Manipulating someone to vote for a candidate is much more important than manipulating somebody into purchasing a vacuum cleaner they were already interested in.