Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

T-Mobile to Automatically Enable Ad Targeting of Customers, Including Those of Sprint

This piece from the New York Times editorial board just three days ago sets the tone for the main topic, I think:

Americans have become inured to the relentless collection of their personal information online. Imagine, for example, if getting your suit pressed at the dry cleaner’s automatically and permanently signed you up to have scores of inferences about you — measurements, gender, race, language, fabric preferences, credit card type — shared with retailers, cleaning product advertisers and hundreds of other dry cleaners, who themselves had arrangements to share that data with others. It might give you pause.

[…]

One straightforward solution is to let people opt in to data collection on apps and websites. Today, with few exceptions, loads of personal data are collected automatically by default unless consumers take action to opt out of the practice — which, in most cases, requires dropping the service entirely.

Drew FitzGerald, Wall Street Journal:

T-Mobile US Inc. will automatically enroll its phone subscribers in an advertising program informed by their online activity, testing businesses’ appetite for information that other companies have restricted.

[…]

AT&T Inc. automatically enrolls wireless subscribers in a basic ad program that pools them into groups based on inferred interests, such as sports or buying a car. An enhanced version of the program shares more-detailed personal information with partners from customers who opt into it.

Verizon Communications Inc. likewise pools subscriber data before sharing inferences about them with advertisers, with a more-detailed sharing program called Verizon Selects for users who enroll. Its separate Verizon Media division shares data gathered through its Yahoo and AOL brands.

Ask pretty much anyone about their modern-day privacy concerns and you will get an earful about Facebook and Google. That’s understandable — they run a two-sided economy of users and advertisers, and have little competition in many of their markets. But the ad tech ecosystem is so gigantic that it is insufficient to focus solely on those two companies.

I have been writing for years that the market for private data needs to be curbed or even eliminated. Now that personal information is available in unfathomable supply, has huge demand, and is an effectively unregulated market, everyone seems to want in on it. Scott Brinker tracks the companies involved in marketing technologies. In 2020, the sector with by far the greatest growth was in data.1 Even the example the Times editorial board used in that lede is pretty much identical to an agreement between Google and Mastercard.

Even as Facebook and Google have become bywords for creepy online behaviour and have begun to spin privacy narratives around isolationist changes, the anti-privacy business is booming. There are thousands of companies only too eager to buy and sell whatever data they can get their hands on and “enrich” it by matching identifiers in different data sets. I maintain that this entire industry is illegitimate but, at the very least, it needs regulation and clear user protections.

This is also a reminder that antitrust investigations solely focused on tech companies is woefully inadequate.


  1. Within the data category, Brinker recorded a 68% growth in “governance, compliance, and privacy” firms. However, that does not mean that the data category grew primarily because of a large increase in compliance companies, perhaps spurred by increased regulation. If you actually look at the infographic, that subcategory went from a handful to a much larger handful — but it is vastly overshadowed by the number of analytics, “customer intelligence”, and “data enhancement” companies. ↩︎