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Case Analysis: The Ethical Data Broker

With the digital world growing ever larger, there is a pressing need for data brokers and advertisers to move forward in a transparent and ethical way that is both respected and admired

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The unavoidable cookie: Yes, it is true. The Star Wars meme (‘Come to the Dark Side: We have Cookies’) online captures the hidden reality of the World Wide Web. ‘We have cookies’ has been added to reflect upon the prevalent online reality in a tongue-in-cheek catchphrase that attempts to persuade a person into being an antagonist. An emotion that Amrita also experienced when Naman introduced her to this complex ecosystem that literally no one with a connected device today can escape.

Sting Predicted this Sting! Perhaps the song ‘Every breath you take’ was ahead of the curve in predicting this reality (metaphorically). What reflected as a stalker’s love ballad also applies to the rise of targeted digital media ads. It is true ‘Every move you make, I’ll be watching you’ might have fallen from the lips of the iconic pop star, but make no mistake, the lyrics might very well be a current report on the future of online advertising.

Digital Brainwashing or Meaningful Serving? One may argue that ‘cookie-based advertising’ is like spying or Internet prowling but then the other argument is how advertisers term it in their language as ‘behavioural advertising’ (sounds positive?) and are only serving basis the data they have gathered around your profile interests, search history and so on. Interestingly, we might be ok if what we consider as ‘legit’ platforms like Amazon or Netflix use our data trail to recommend a book or direct us to a movie we might like. But we wouldn’t be ok if invisible ‘cyberazzis’ put a cookie in our browsers and tracked us everywhere on the Internet or even upsold it to a third party data broker who would then combine it with our offline purchase data to sell further to potential advertisers.

The issue is most people like Amrita have not heard of the concept of data brokers and this unregulated reality. However, somewhere their actions have come under scrutiny and have started websites that relays the digital footprint information that they have collected about consumers for them to check but this does not contain all data. Case in point: BlueKai, one of the biggest data brokers in the US, publishes consumer data in an attempt to give them some control and according to them somehow legitimises their actions.

The Curious and Creepy Case of the Black Tape: The fact that Suraj uses a black electrical tape to cover his webcam and audio jack is extremely creepy and would leave anyone reading this narrative shivering. This literally highlights the thin line that data brokers are walking on with consumers – clearly one can question – ‘How much is too much?’ Clearly, it is in the best interests of data brokers to manage their perception amongst the aware digital natives and public at large. Therefore, it is the prerogative of the tech firms driving this data to be extremely careful of the ‘creep factor’ because one unhappy customer or one person who feels that their data has been abused will have a negative domino effect on their perception among public at large.

Solution: The need here is to manage technological norms with local cultural norms. Considering what technology offers is quite intense, the reality of data gathering and sharing will become even complex in the coming years. Advertisers and data brokers must not forget that ‘digital retargeting’ is more useful to them than to customers and hence they need to be playing a better role in making data more meaningful that results in intuitive and sharper ad work. Customers shouldn’t get a feeling that they are being served random ads, which are intrusive and obstructive to what they may be doing online — it would harm a brand’s image.

Moving forward, it would be ideal if more people like Amrita are made aware of this modern day digital-data gathering reality so that they are careful while sharing personal data or understanding consent policies. Likewise, data gatherers must make the effort to understand local cultural realities and human sentiment. With the digital world growing ever larger, there is a pressing need for data brokers and advertisers to move forward in a transparent and ethical way that is both respected and admired.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Govind Pandey

The writer is CEO, TBWA India

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