Wherever you go on the Internet, someone is watching you. A lot of someones, actually, because everything you do represents potentially big money, from the sites you regularly frequent, to the ads you click, to the people in your social network. Historically, firms aggregated data like this primarily for advertising services, to determine which ads to target at you and to develop effective overall advertising campaigns. Now, that data is being used in entirely new ways, and some of those ways might surprise you.
Suddenly, your history online can determine the type of content, and people, you’re served, which means that a growing digital divide is being created between rich and poor, conservative and liberal, black and white, and other social groups. Firms buy and sell vast amounts of data, including very detailed profiles of users, and use this data for activities like setting product prices. Think everyone is paying the same amount for that crockpot you just bought? Think again. The price you paid was determined by your profile, other products you’ve looked at, the time of day, and other factors, with the site serving up a price customized just for you.
Maybe those metrics ended up in a lower price intended to lure you into making a purchase after some exploratory research into crockpots. On the other hand, maybe you got charged more than another customer because the site’s metrics were confident that you’d pay a little extra. Likewise, different users are offered different deals, promotions, advertising and other features based on their profiles. Friends suggested by services like Twitter are also based on data collected about you.
Customization is supposed to make the Internet more fun and easy, but it comes with some chilling effects, and not all of those are obvious. For example, low-income users may be unjustly profiled as unsafe credit risks, which means they won’t be exposed to the same credit offers and options as other users. In fact, an entire “fourth bureau” of data collection agencies determines creditworthiness for low income people, and it doesn’t play by the rules like Equifax, TransUnion and Experian do.
With customization becoming more sophisticated, the chances for discrimination are increasing; imagine not knowing that small business loans are available when you’re a single mother thinking about starting your own small business, or not being able to find truly competitive rates on such loans, for example. This creates a crossover between the digital world and the physical one, and can perpetuate social disparities and inequalities in a form of Internet redlining that keeps some users entirely out of specific areas of the Internet while welcoming others.
And, of course, when your entire experience with the Internet, right down to which search results you see, is mediated by unseen hands, you have no idea how much of your experience is being shaped by other people. As a source of free and open information, the Internet should be navigable for all, with transparency across the board, whether people are logged on from a library computer during their lunch breaks or surfing in bed from their Macbooks.
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