The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report today publishing their findings of how digital advertising is being used specifically on news sites. While the report found that the relationship between news and digital advertising seems to be tenuous–around 21% of digital ads are in-house, with many trying to persuade you to move back to a print subscription–the report also raises some questions about digital advertising and ad targeting from a privacy perspective.
But let’s start with the one bright spot: Ad targeting is surprisingly low on the news sites sampled for the report. Of the 22 news sites included in the study, only 3 appeared to use highly targeted ads, where at least 45% of the ads differed from user to user. The other sites didn’t appear to target at all, or did so to a moderate degree.
I was surprised that Pew found such a low degree of targeting, because I myself have found it used quite blatantly—if I’ve looked at boots on Zappos within the past week, the Zappos ads that pop up for me on Salon.com (which was not in the Pew study) showcase those exact same boots, and others which are markedly similar. This suggests that my personal browser history is being ‘read’ and factors in to the ads which are selected for me; if I were a parent recently shopping for kids’ shoes on Zappos, ads for kids’ shoes would pop up instead. On the other hand, there are plenty of other sites I visit which prominently advertise car insurance, even though I don’t own a car and I’m not a car enthusiast, which suggests those ads aren’t being shown to me based on my specific browsing behavior. So, maybe Big Brother isn’t watching us as closely as we thought. We can all breathe a big sigh of relief that so few sites are relying heavily on ad targeting, right?
Not so fast, says the Pew report. One way we can hide our recent browsing history is by periodically deleting cookies, which are like breadcrumbs that get dropped on our browser by various sites we visit, and which can be read as indications of what we’re interested in lately. Clearing cookies has long been taught as one of the most basic ways people can go about protecting their browsing history, and thus their privacy, but the Pew researchers found that clearing cookies didn’t make a bit of difference for the handful of sites that did employ high rates of targeting. Even after clearing cookies while browsing these sites, researchers got the same ads they saw when browsing with cookies enabled—and those ads differed from user to user, reflecting their recent history. It seems that with or without cookies, the ads still know where we’ve been.
The reason we care about this from a media literacy standpoint has mainly to do with knowing where and why we’re seeing certain ads as we get our daily news, and the tools being used to divert our attention while we’re trying to do something as mundane as getting the weekly weather forecast, or while we’re trying to become more enlightened citizens. In addition, the revelation that deleting cookies does little or nothing to protect privacy has startling implications, not only for the level of detail advertisers can use to make sure they get our attention, but also what it means for our digital footprints and identities. Your browsing history tells a story about you—how you use your time, what interests you. One can take the position that this is only an issue for people who have something to hide, and the rest of us shouldn’t worry. However, it’s the principle of taking steps you believed would protect your privacy online, and then finding out that those actions changed nothing. Until there is reason to suspect serious wrongdoing, protecting your privacy online is your right and responsibility as a digital citizen. As the Pew report suggests, deleting cookies as a way to maintain that right is just a myth.
Emily Long is Director of Communications and Development for The LAMP and editor of The LAMPpost. Follow her on Twitter: @emlong
Follow The LAMP on Twitter: @thelampnyc