Matthias Le Brun
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We've got an advertising problem

2021/01/22

By successfully transforming private user data into a profit, the richest companies have taken advertising a step too far, endangering both the private and the public life.

Nowadays, in order to generate revenue, most websites sell some of their visual space to advertisers. That concept has been around for quite a while. It worked in the printed press, and it's a perfectly legitimate business model.

On one hand, brands need advertising to build up public awareness. Unless you're extremely lucky and/or have a gigantic network, it can be really hard to make your brand known without ads. Even with a strong consumer base, you'll sometimes need to communicate as a brand, to give it an identity.

On the other hand, the web culture of the "free" roots deeply in people's mind. Most people are used to it, and wouldn't pay a specific website a fee to read it. That culture forced websites into mostly relying on ad revenue to be able to exist.

The easy answer is that websites should offer a subscription model, but reality is that people can't subscribe to all the websites that they read: practically, that'd be way too expensive. It would also endanger the ability to cross-check, read various sources and takes on a topic, which is essential to a healthy democracy.

So you get people wanting to buy ad space on websites to show their messages, and people wanting to sell their ad spaces. Everything should be good, right?

In recent history, ad revenue that used to go to publishers got sucked in by Google & Facebook. Advertisers moved most of their budgets to these two platforms. How can we blame them? That seems like a reasonable choice, as Google & Facebook have undeniable advantages over what the market used to be.

First, they know their users: what they like, what topics catch their attention, their history, what they're currently actively searching for. That alone offered advertisers an unprecedented targeting ability, ensuring them a good return on investment.

Second, they're centralized places: people spend a lot of time on Google & Facebook. They both represent a huge portion of the global internet traffic. It's only logical for advertisers to reduce their effort to buy spaces. Instead of spending most of their time looking to buy spaces on various websites: they buy them in two places and get results.

Third, they're technologically advanced. Small businesses can buy ads on Google & Facebook in a matter of minutes. And they can pay as they go.

How do you go against that? Is there even a fighting chance?

On one side, you get unregulated actors, who can identify their users precisely because they spend a lot of time on their useful services: the perfect Trojan horse. On the other, you have isolated press websites who cannot identify users efficiently, because they're not a single platform, they are a huge number of independent platforms. They don't have the centralization power Google & Facebook have.

And that independence is necessary for the freedom of press and for democracy. It's not something we can take away from them.

So came the "programmatic" era.

"Programmatic" is an umbrella term for a very complicated system that automates all the online advertising process. Instead of having salespeople in a media reaching out to brands and agencies, you let the space you sell be managed by a third-party. Whenever one of your readers loads one of your pages, that third-party will organize a real-time auction for the ad space the user is going to see.

On paper, that looks like a fantastic idea: you get a big exchange place where advertisers and publishers meet, the advertiser says how much they're willing to pay to show a user an ad, and that's it. Fully automated. No need for salespeople anymore. The third-party acts as a common denominator. It's the one managing to identify users, artificially grouping these isolated websites to give targeting capabilities across the web.

Reality is quite different. You don't have a single third-party. You have lots of them. One that manages the demand, one that manages the supply, one that organizes the auction. Of course, each of them takes a cut on the way. Most of them are Google. Then you get smaller companies that plug themselves to that system at various intersections. Even though, on a dollar an advertiser spends on an ad, chances are, most of it will go to Google.

The data that enables user identification is shared with the entire ecosystem on each ad request. Just look at the "partners" list on the box that asks you if you accept cookies. It's impossible that you give a clear consent to a thousand companies you've never heard of. But why is there so much? That's due to the nature of programmatic advertising itself, because of that auction system between lots and lots of companies. They need the maximum amount of data they can get in order to know if and how much they'll bid on an ad space.

What you get in the end is a system that controls websites from top to bottom, feeds them with leftovers, and doesn't care about user privacy.

The press needs revenue to exist, but they're now stuck in a system where a handful of companies that sucked their revenues, that continue to enforce the idea that content is free, that control the access to their websites as they act as "internet entry-points" for most users (as deep as the browser people use) control the revenues scraps conceded to them.

With less attractiveness for advertisers, revenues lowered by middlemen cuts, websites are forced to crave ad views to survive.

The news rarely leads media anymore, the views do. Some hot topics are overrepresented and distort the perception of reality for millions. Truth has even become an option as long as the debate brings people in, encouraged by algorithms the same big platforms that control everything around them implement to optimize their own revenue (algorithm is used to hide the word "decision" behind a complex term that makes it seem that you're not responsible because it appears as some magical computer stuff happening behind the curtains).

We just have to look at what happens on TV, which relies on the same business model, to see where we'll head If we go down that road (and most TV is regulated, just imagine the same situation if not).

The news is paradoxical. It's a necessary element for a society to be healthy, a mandatory good for the public, but it's also a business. A business that's hard to run, that's trapped between its mission and its necessity to generate revenue, starting to trade its integrity to save itself. Is it worth saving if we lose our trust in the process?

We can't let its fate to the hands of a few companies that don't care if they break society as long as they'll make a buck on it.

What can we do about that?

Create a global press platform

That could take many forms, from a redistributed tax that'd pay for the access to a single-platform service where all the press would be accessible, payed through a single subscription or ad-based model.

Nowadays, subscribing to a news source can be expensive. Consequently people won't subscribe to many news providers, if any. Not a lot of people can afford subscribing to a variety of information treatments. While it increases inequalities, it also enforces the bubble effect social media "algorithms" created: people won't get access to multiple angles.

Information cannot be a winner-takes-all kind of business.

A platform would ensure that the press doesn't run after money, while ensuring the news is accessible to most. The hard part would be to find a fair distribution mechanism. It can't be a naive calculation based on the generated views, otherwise we'd only recreate what's wrong in the first place, and encourage sensational articles over boring, measured, old news. Getting everyone on board would be hard. Some would want to maximize profits through free content with ads, some would prefer to keep trying having their own subscribers.

A platform would be able to suggest alternative takes, complementary information, fact-checking. That'd require media brands not see themselves as competitors for user attention but collaborators for a greater cause: empowering people to learn, read multiple angles to the same story, bring contradiction and nuance instead of letting people fall into fake news rabbit holes. Some people distrust media altogether, some people distrust scientific consensus : these issues need to be addressed, by the media.

Media probably need to sacrifice the "thought monopoly" they have on some readers, and accept putting their takes next to other ones, for a better treatment and for the greater good. Such a platform could be moderated by the media in it, managing fact-checking collaboratively to avoid getting to where we are now with the big platforms.

Break down the big tech companies

These companies have concentrated too much power and influence on the public to be let infinitely growing uncontrolled. The galaxy of free services they provide to users is a well thought trap, collecting enormous amounts of data and widening the gap with any company that'd try to compete. Is it possible today to take a decent part of the search market from Google? Probably not, unless you have unlimited money. We ended up in a situation where the gateway to information is controlled by a single player that gets better at what it does everyday, making it harder to compete by the day.

They've become judge, jury and executioner for nearly every bit of information that's transmitted between individuals. Their rules aren't democratic. Facebook removes nudity in famous paintings but lets hate speech propagate, actively pushing people down to fake news & hatred as it increases the time users spend on the platform. They're so deeply rooted in our daily lives that they're able to subtly influence us using the data we gave, willingly or not.

Despite being recently challenged by public institutions, most of these platforms expressed no feeling of responsibility for the recent events, even though their influence is manifest. I'm perfectly willing to believe that they did not initially intend these consequences. However, with the knowledge we now have, remaining in the status quo is an active decision, not a suspended state. What they created is whether completely out of control or willingly maintained in order to keep the money flowing. Either way, it's a decision in which they invest their time & energy in trying to look good instead of trying to fix the problem.

We can't let a slight change in an "algorithm" kill a press website because their titles aren't "clickbaity" enough, we can't let the ad system of a single video platform force a production rhythm and impose arbitrary editorial constrains to creators to condition their revenue stream, we can't let a single company in control of virtually all the information access on the globe, we can't rely on a single company to host most of the information.

Even by capitalist standards, it would be hard to defend the scale of their monopoly. In its theory, in order for a market to be healthy, new competitors need to be able to emerge. The biggest tech companies have accumulated so much that the only way to make that possible is to break the biggest ones down, preventing them from accumulating even more from what they already have.

Some would call that unfair, but don't worry, in any case, the big bosses of tech giant will be alright, they have more money that they can spend already, I wouldn't pity them.

Make sure that doesn't happen again

What enabled tech giants to be so powerful in the first place is data. They turn data into targeting capabilities. As it's been a fairly new territory, they were (and still are for the most part) unsupervised in doing so.

Things are starting to change, some laws protecting individuals are starting to emerge. Sadly, they're not ideal, suffering from heavy lobbying from tech giants with nearly unlimited legal means. GDPR for instance is harder on smaller websites that rely on third-parties to monetize their spaces than it is on massive platforms people spend most of their time on. Still, that's a start. It leads to public awareness on the issue, and more work is being done, and we can greatly benefit from such laws.

In the meantime, we can already technically limit the data-collection capabilities. Safari, Firefox & Brave block third-party cookies by default. It doesn't break the advertising ecosystem, it just makes it rely on context rather than individual profiles. Is that less efficient? No. We can serve relevant ads without breaking privacy (and you're less likely to ruin a birthday surprise because targeted ads give you away).

Reduce our dependency to ad companies now

Reduce your dependency on ad tech giants. Whether you're an individual, a brand, a publisher, or anything else.

Alternatives might be slightly less convenient, might shake some habits, but also might be good opportunities to explore new areas, discover and rethink ways to do something. It's a tradeoff. Easy vs good.

It's not an easy choice though, especially for individuals. We've gotten used to this confort. Imagine not being able to search on Google, buy on Amazon, contact people on social networks. Most of them changed our lives, expanded possibilities in every direction, good or bad. Alternatives are different, some are really good, some miss a few bits, some made different choices, but it's worth a try. Helping smaller businesses (relative to Facebook and Google, most of them are) to be a serious contender can move the lines.

Let's not lose every aspect of our lives to the hands of ad companies.

In recent years we've had a glimpse of what it could be to let these companies do what they want: inference in the democratic process, expansion of false information and conspiracy theories, hate speech normalization, violence. Let's not risk getting deeper.

Let's try to fix this before it's too late, otherwise that'd be a pretty lame ending, wouldn't it?

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Copyright 2020 - Matthias Le Brun