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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What Does the Internet Think?

neon light brain

neon light brain

On personal data, personalized advertising, and pain

Irina Raicu

The Internet Thinks I’m Still Pregnant,” a poignant piece by Amy Pittman published in the New York Times last week, might make you sad. In part that’s because the article details a miscarriage and its aftermath, which included misguided marketing from a company that had acquired the information that the writer was pregnant, but not the subsequent information that her pregnancy had ended.

Pittman herself seems to have taken that miscue in stride, however; after receiving in the mail a box of infant formula samples accompanied by a card about the “joy of parenthood” (seven months after her miscarriage), she writes,

The same internet that seems to know everything about us… had no idea that our baby had died.

This might have upset me. Instead, I laughed. …

Two years from now, it will probably assume I’m dealing with potty training and send me samples of training pants. … Where will it end?

She adds that she “liked that our baby remained a piece of living data to someone.”

(Other consumers might respond differently to such experiences. I would be one of those. I have written a bit about getting birthday greetings addressed to my mother from various advertisers, years after her death. I did not find comfort in those. I did not feel that they meant the internet somehow “remembered” my mother. The grinding up and reconstitution of personal details into promotional pablum only resurfaced my awareness of loss.)

That Pittman was pregnant, and how far along, were bits of information that the marketers had gotten from a pregnancy-tracking app that Pittman had used. Pittman describes the app:

With a quick tap on the screen, I could see how big my baby’s hands were, look ahead to what new and weird things my body would do in the coming days and weeks, and read blogs from new and seasoned mothers. All it asked of me was some basic personal information: email, address, age and date of my last period.

She clearly finds the app valuable and helpful. After the miscarriage, she writes, “When I got home from the clinic, I opened the app and terminated my virtual pregnancy with the touch of a button. The app immediately responded with a consoling email and cleared my data. It was then… that I finally let go and cried.”

The app had made both the pregnancy and the loss seem somehow more concrete. And that app, of course, was part of the Internet, too—which brings me to the other part about Pittman’s piece that is sad: the phrasing of its headline. Because, no, it wasn’t “the internet” that still “thought” she was pregnant—not unless we’re willing to concede that “the internet” is synonymous with intrusive, inaccurate, inconsiderate marketing gimmicks.

Sure, I get that headlines speak in shorthand and that personification implies imprecision. And many, many headlines start with the phrase “The Internet Thinks…” Generally, though, articles with such headlines describe widespread reactions to something or other on various social media channels. It’s as if Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and a few other companies have become the “voices” of the internet, telling us what it thinks. (That, in itself, can be debated: if we want to know what “the internet” thinks about, shouldn’t we look, instead, maybe, at the number of websites about a particular topic?) Still, as evidence of what the internet “thinks,” I would rather look at widespread conversations on social media sites than at the work of marketers trying to turn our personal data into targeted promotions.

Presumably, the parts of the internet that help Pittman communicate with loved ones and coworkers and doctors, find information, use a variety of services, and even track a pregnancy, don’t think that Pittman is still pregnant. But many of those parts do share personal data (like the very personal data about Pittman’s pregnancy, which she and her husband had yet to disclose even to family and friends) with advertisers—whether we want that or not.

Increasingly, as we all become more aware of this, people are taking protective measures (see, for example, the rapid rise in the use of ad blockers—which is really an effort to limit the tracking and collection of personal information). Some people, though, don’t mind; they are willing to share at least some personal data in exchange for more personalized services and discounts on things that they want. Even in such cases, though, when we accept data-sharing with advertisers, shouldn’t we demand some companion measures to ensure that the exchange actually works for us, rather than potentially backfiring as in Pittman’s case?

For example, some scholars and technologists have been discussing for years the possibility of putting expiration dates on information available on the web. Maybe it’s time to demand that this be done to data dossiers bought and sold online, and/or demand regulation that would put time limits on the use of any particular list for advertising. Or maybe other solutions could be found, so that, even in an era of rampant collection and use of personal data, we won’t have to just put up with experiences like the one Pittman describes. The Internet needs to think a little harder.

Photo by Dierk Schaefer, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Sep 9, 2016

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