In Profit over privacy: how surveillance advertising conquered the internet, Matthew Crain explores the historical rise of surveillance advertising, showing how today’s digital landscape was shaped by decisions made in the 1990s. Revealing the emergence of a market logic that placed individual surveillance at the central to his concerns, this book is hard-hitting and engaging, written Augustin Ferrari Braun.
Profit over privacy: how surveillance advertising conquered the internet. Matthew Crain. University of Minnesota Press. 2021.
Historicizing the Internet is a fashionable trend. Since the beginning of the “techlash” against the Internet giants, many have tried to offer historical accounts of why and when the relationship between capital and technology deteriorated. by Shoshana Zuboff The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is perhaps the most successful of them, but it is far from unique. In fact, the popular notion of Web3 can be read as an attempt to impose an epochal perspective on the Internet, a perspective that closes the door on the problems of the past, promising a bright future beyond Web 2.0.
by Matthew Crain Profit over privacy: how surveillance advertising conquered the internet is a valuable contribution to this debate. Moving away from short-term perspectives, it presents an expansive exercise in path dependency analysis, convincingly showing how our digital landscape was shaped by decisions made in the 1990s. Crain uses political economy to analyze the marketing complex’s successful attempt to be at the center of web expansion during Bill Clinton’s US presidency and the dotcom bubble, a position it still holds today. Technology hasn’t gone crazy in recent years: it fulfills a role in the global capitalist economy that was carved out for the industry before Mark Zuckerberg hit puberty.
The central concept of the book, surveillance advertising, describes the practice of profiling individual users through an aggregation of their data, which is then sold to marketers to deliver personalized advertisements. Crain isn’t particularly concerned about the supposed persuasiveness of these ads, which he correctly identifies as more of a sales pitch than an existing reality. Instead, he focuses on the systemic consequences of this practice, which “encourages, naturalizes and profits from the manipulative and discriminatory behaviors” of marketers (5). Therein lies one of the greatest strengths of this work: it abandons moral judgment on the actions of specific companies to instead demonstrate that all tech giants must act in accordance with a market logic that has placed individual monitoring at the heart of its concerns.
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The first part of the book deals with the political decisions that have shaped the web as we know it. Clinton’s “New Democrats” were eager to partner with the private sector to draft the first comprehensive set of Internet policies. The national information infrastructure and the framework for global electronic commerce have taken two decisive positions that will pave the way for decades to come. First, the US government took a hands-off stance regarding digital media development: private companies would lead the way, with the federal government as steward. Second, the expansion of the Internet would be fueled by advertising, as the only source of revenue that could make digital media affordable without risking central government control. Sensing the looming threat of interactive media and its potential opportunities, the marketing complex lobbied the Clinton administration hard for these results, putting its own business needs at the forefront of new media. Interestingly, these efforts were made even before the technology to run digital campaigns was available.
Enter ad networks, the development of which in the late 1990s occupies the second section of the book. These companies acted as middlemen between web publishers seeking ad revenue and marketers buying ads. However, despite their ability to reach thousands of websites, the return on investment (ROI) of these campaigns was low. The widespread introduction of cookies in 1997 would solve this problem. Cookies are small blocks of data created by websites that identify browsers, creating “an ongoing state of communication between browsers and services” (66) and allowing advertising networks to systematically collect information about user behavior. individual. In doing so, they effectively ended online anonymity and ushered in a new surveillance paradigm where marketers could buy information about specific user profiles and target them with personalized content, without ever asking their permission. Digital media had found a form of advertising that could generate billions in profit.
Ad networks developed as “protoplatforms”, with an hourglass business model in which they acted as intermediaries between buyers and sellers, allowing them in turn to impose their terms, including adoption cookies on the web. Such initiatives flourished during the dotcom bubble. Companies like DoubleClick and CMGI relied heavily on venture capital, concentrating their market power and building infrastructure without being constrained to turn to profit, while benefiting from the huge marketing budgets of other digital companies that needed to make themselves known as part of their attraction strategy. funding. This feedback loop strengthened the surveillance model, obliterating other approaches like subscription-based services, and created a dynamic that forced the various players in the marketing complex to embark on it.
Despite its seemingly unstoppable rise, several players attempted to change the direction in which the web was developing. As early as 1993, policymakers alerted the Clinton administration to the fact that a purely commercial approach to the Internet would allow private companies to develop massive surveillance devices, to no avail. Similarly, programmers have sounded the alarm about the anonymizing nature of cookies, with a comparable level of success.
The most extensive efforts by civil society organizations to limit the private sector’s encroaching power over privacy took place in the late 1990s, when privacy activists succeeded in tarnishing the reputation of ad networks and to position the issue as a key debate in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election. Yet the very terms of the debate, focusing primarily on regulating privacy rights without challenging the broader structure of the Web, proved the success of the marketing complex in imposing its business interests on the Internet. Eventually, an extensive lobbying campaign controlled the damage and no binding legislation was proposed.
Ad networks’ overreliance on venture capital put them in a perilous position when the dotcom bubble burst. Only business leaders managed to survive the crash, and their valuation would never recover, but the systemic logic had already imposed itself. Driven by the demand for constant market growth, the new tech giants would buy the databases of advertising agencies, Google and Facebook in the lead. They integrated them into their own services, fostering the unprecedented surveillance infrastructure that has come to dominate the contemporary Internet.
Crain’s argument regarding the systemic logic of surveillance ads is powerful and engaging, though there is one caveat that might be particularly noticeable to European audiences. All along Profit over privacy, the internet means the American internet. While the two are an equivalence in the Western world these days, that was not the case during the dotcom bubble. The French Minitel, for example, was an example of digital infrastructure designed as a public good using a commercial logic very different from the American model, reaching its peak in the mid-1990s. The Clinton administration was well aware of these competing approaches, and his role as an industry watchdog included strong advocacy for American business interests around the world.
The development of surveillance advertising must therefore be understood as part of American foreign policy, yet Crain fails to integrate this aspect of the equation into his analysis. Just as the privacy debate of the late 1990s testified to the success of the corporate agenda, this omission shows the power of the United States to shape the narrative around digital technologies. Ultimately, a charitable view, which I tend to lean towards given the strength of the book, would be that the complete embedding of the web in the logics of global capital required its subordination to hegemony in such a comprehensive way that it is difficult for even a critical scholar to fully conceptualize.
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Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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About the Examiner
Augustin Ferrari Braun – University of Amsterdam
Agustin Ferrari Braun is a lecturer in cross-media and television at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on the political economy of digital media, financialization and platformization.