Half of ad spending used to be presumed to be wasted and it was impossible to tell which half, but advanced data utilization changed that reality. Megan Gray of DuckDuckGo, speaking at a recent New America Foundation event called “Paying for Our Privacy,” contended that much consumer animus and regulatory response seems motivated by disdain for the supposedly rampant commodification of user data (which fuels the provision of all the free services and apps online). The biggest commodification highlighted by Gray and the panel was behavioral targeted advertising, which tailors communications to individual consumer preferences. If you search for new shoes, then shoe ads follow you online; your political beliefs may be inferred from your data and used to control your newsfeed or social media views. Gray called the behavioral online advertising model “surveillance capitalism.”

The speakers at the New America event recognized that many of the revolutionary services that harvest and monetize data are free, but worried more about consumers supposedly being coerced into agreement with possibly unpalatable privacy policies.

Additionally, if the consumer is given the choice to opt out, there is rightful concern that they will be treated differently than those that consent to the monetization of their data. Although the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) prohibits discrimination, Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation believes the section is “self-negating” because of a clause that allows companies to charge a different priced based on the reasonable value of the data. (The Insights Association has also been involved in California A.B. 846, which would clarify CCPA to actually allow for loyalty and rewards programs.)

The solution presented by DuckDuckGo is “contextual advertising,” which reacts to what you search online, not who you are. For example, if you search for a vacuum, then you get ads for vacuums, not for whatever you searched or visited previously. Because DuckDuckGo makes “a ton of money” using contextual advertising, Gray contended that it could replace behavioral advertising. While she said there was room for tailored advertising because if you are searching for vacuums then maybe ads for cleaning supplies would be appropriate, but dismissed the merits of behavioral advertising itself.

When questioned about the future of ad tech, none of the panelists at the New America event offered a vision of how to reform or improve behavioral advertising; they want it to die. The idea of asking consumers what they truly think and feel about the direction of advertising technology, their interaction with it, and calibrating where it falls on the creepy to cool scale, was not on the radar for the panelists, nor was waiting to see how the market responds.

-- Trentan Cunningham, a legal intern at the Insights Association, is pursuing his law degree at the University of San Diego School of Law.