Tracking on the net: online advertising also works without monitoring – digital


Most people hate online advertising. Many advertising banners on the Internet are not really interesting. Some seem so creepy to fit their own interests that one wonders whether some tech company might not be listening through the smartphone microphone after all (to prevent conspiracy myths: no). Those who don’t make their living with digital ads could do without them.

Even so, online advertising will not go away. There are more than 300 billion reasons for this. That is how many euros is the estimated volume of the digital advertising market this year. “Too big to fail” was the motto of the banking world during the financial crisis. This self-image also pervades the advertising industry. It is a system where too many people are making too much money to question fundamentally.

That could turn out to be a serious mistake. The first cracks are already evident. As is so often the case, it is Silicon Valley that recognizes the trend first. Apple will soon make it more difficult to track users across apps and websites. So far this has been done without being asked, in future developers will have to ask for permission. Apple has little to lose and a lot to gain: The company does not sell attention, but tablets, laptops and smartphones. This makes it easy to publicly advocate data protection and to point a finger at Facebook.

Google also wants to block certain tracking methods from next year. In future, only website operators should know who is accessing their offer. In doing so, Google is digging its most important resource from a huge network of adtech providers and advertising sellers: data. Like Apple, Google can take this step because its own business model no longer depends on it. The group has developed a technology to be able to display personalized advertising in spite of this. In addition, Google’s wealth of data continues to grow even without tracking cookies: its Android operating system, its web search and services such as Gmail, Maps and Youtube throw away massive amounts of data.

People don’t want to be monitored

Both corporations do not act altruistically, but follow an economic logic. More and more people are resisting being monitored online. Politicians have also discovered the topic for themselves. When the heads of the big tech companies have to testify before the US Congress, words like surveillance capitalism are used. Corresponding cartel investigations are ongoing in the USA and Great Britain, and members of the European Parliament have founded a “coalition for tracking-free advertising”.

These are the cracks that run through the masonry of a multibillion-dollar industry. Visible enough for far-sighted homeowners like Apple and Google to cover up the ugly spots. But it could be that the cracks are only the harbingers of a great quake. Then it wouldn’t be enough with a little paint on the wall. Then the whole building threatened to collapse.

Is the big advertising bubble bursting?

The IT researcher Tim Hwang warns of this. “We have long thought that targeted advertising can influence people better and better,” he said in an interview with SZ at the beginning of the year. This is a misconception based on false data and fraud. “There’s so much money in the online advertising business that it’s worth simulating attention and then selling it.” Hwang compares the current system with the bad mortgages that led to the financial crisis in 2008: a bubble that could soon burst.

The alternative is not to forego online advertising. Many free offers can only exist because there are ads. The media are also partly dependent on it. But encouraging examples show that digital advertising need not be based on surveillance. The Dutch broadcaster NPO abolished cookies in early 2020 and no longer collects personal data. The New York Times does not use personalized advertising in Europe. The feared break-in did not materialize. NPO even earns significantly more because it no longer has to share the income with marketers, agencies and other middlemen.

These are individual cases with special requirements that cannot be transferred to all publishers and websites. But they make one thing clear: there are alternatives to online advertising that annoy people and jeopardize their privacy. And if Hwang’s seismograph measures correctly, then it would be in the interests of the entire industry to renovate the house from the ground up: Mountains of data are not a foundation that can withstand an earthquake.

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