Accuracy in Media

Marie Claire manages to misunderstand how the whole commercial internet works, which is something of a pity. It’s not made any better by Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), who is featured in the piece, not quite grasping matters herself.

App companies, search engines, do not, in fact, sell data. They sell access to advertising to groups that match certain characteristics. This is an important distinction.

“This Bill Wants to Stop Anti-Abortion Groups From Getting Your Private Data. Period,” the piece is headlined.

We’ll admit to offering a gold star to the headline writer for that headline, but other than that, it seems based upon a gross misunderstanding.

“Companies can sell or share your data to really anybody,” the subhead says.

But that’s not how the system works. People don’t sell data. Not in the sense of “Sara’s period tracking app now shows she’s pregnant” they don’t which is the thing that is being worried about here. In fact, companies don’t even sell data, they rent out the ability to advertise to people.

The search engine, the app, states that it has a database of x hundred (or thousand, million) people who match a certain characteristic. Like, say, having recently become pregnant. People who would like to sell things to those with that characteristic (say, being recently pregnant – selling back rubs, maternity clothes, the ability to sleep through the night for the last time in 20 years) can then bid to advertise to those people. But the opportunity is to advertise to those people with that characteristic. It’s not “Sara’s pregnant,” it’s, “Here’s our list of recently pregnant people you can advertise to”.

It’s simply not even data being sold, it’s access to demographic slices of the population for advertising purposes. The advertiser doesn’t get the data – they get access to the demographic slice.

Yes, agreed, this isn’t what we normally get told in this field but it is true. Google:

“We never sell your personal information.

“Your personal information is not for sale. While advertising makes it possible for us to offer products free of charge and helps the websites and apps that partner with us fund their content, we do not sell your personal information to anyone.”

Seems pretty clear: The data is not sold. Of course, from that source there’s always the response, well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? So, from an independent source:

“Companies from Facebook to Google to Twitter repeat versions of this statement in their privacy policies, public statements, and congressional testimony. And when taken very literally, the promise is true…”

Here are some folks who are very much against Google, and yet here’s their description of what happens:

“Google monetizes what it observes about people in two major ways:

  1. It uses data to build individual profiles with demographics and interests, then lets advertisers target groups of people based on those traits.
  2. It shares data with advertisers directly and asks them to bid on individual ads.

“The second method of monetization involves most of the behaviors that regular people might think of as ‘selling data.’”

That’s not selling data. That selling access to slices of the population – the advertisers don’t get the information that “Sharon is pregnant” they get the information that there are “x hundred pregnant women that you can advertise to” and if you would like to then it will cost you $y hundred each time.

Again, someone opposed to how the system works explains it at the same source:

“You can say, ‘Hey, Google, I want a list of people ages 18–35 who watched the Super Bowl last year.’ They won’t give you that list, but they will let you serve ads to all those people,” Cyphers said.

They’re not selling the data; they’re selling access to slices of the population that can be advertised to. This really is a different thing.

Marie Claire ranks around the 300 mark in the usual lists of media outlets for the US. It gains some 10 million visits a month from that position. The American edition is run by Hearst, which does mean they have the resources to get these things right.

It’s a common misconception that internet collectors of information then sell that. They don’t. They use it to create demographic profiles which advertisers can then bid to offer advertisements to. The real pity of Marie Claire getting this wrong is that all they had to do was go ask their own advertising department and they’d have been told how the business actually works. Marie Claire doesn’t sell the data of readers – it rents the ability to advertise to interest groups to advertisers. But you know, these days, actual research by journalists, so passé. As to Congresswomen, well…

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