Google and Facebook, including their subsidiaries like Instagram and YouTube, make about 83 percent and 99 percent of their respective revenue from one thing: selling ads. It’s the same story with Twitter and other free sites and apps. More to the point, these companies are in the business of what’s called behavioral advertising, which allows companies to aim their marketing based on everything from users’ sexual orientations to their moods and menstrual cycles, as revealed by everything they do on their devices and every place they take them. It follows that most of the unsavory things the platforms do—boost inflammatory content, track our whereabouts, enable election manipulation, crush the news industry—stem from the goal of boosting ad revenues. Instead of trying to clean up all these messes one by one, the logic goes, why not just remove the underlying financial incentive? Targeting ads based on individual user data didn’t even really exist until the past decade. (Indeed, Google still makes many billions of dollars from ads tied to search terms, which aren’t user-specific.) What if companies simply weren’t allowed to do it anymore?
Let’s pretend it really happened. Imagine Congress passed a law tomorrow morning that banned companies from doing any ad microtargeting whatsoever. Close your eyes and picture what life would be like if the leading business model of the internet were banished from existence. How would things be different?
Many of the changes would be subtle. You could buy a pair of shoes on Amazon without Reebok ads following you for months. Perhaps you’d see some listings that you didn’t see before, for jobs or real estate. That’s especially likely if you’re African-American, or a woman, or a member of another disadvantaged group. You might come to understand that microtargeting had supercharged advertisers’ ability to discriminate, even when they weren’t trying to.