It has always been hard to maintain the balance between users' privacy on the one hand and companies' marketing goals on the other. Yet, despite so many qualms and complaints, tracking technology moves ever forward. Almost every website you visit today collects cookies for digital marketing. Retargeting, ads that follow users around the internet, is commonplace. Are people finally giving up the fight for privacy and accepting this type of technology? Or are we on the verge of a backlash that will see people reasserting their fundamental right to privacy?
Social media has certainly changed our ideas and expectations of privacy. Some might argue that the very idea of online privacy is an illusion if not an oxymoron. Between internet service providers, Google and other search engines and websites that collect cookies, it's a simple fact that information is widely tracked, collected, and sold on a daily basis. Law enforcement and other government agencies also have wide access to personal information. If anything, privacy is eroding even more in recent years. The remaining question is, are people rebelling against this or starting to accept it?
Is Online Ad Tracking Creepy or Accepted?
There's something basically unnerving about knowing that your every move and keystroke is easily tracked. It evokes the scenario from Orwell's 1984, which predicted the age when screens weren't only for watching but tools for watching you. Privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation seek ways to scale back intrusive technology and help internet users regain privacy. What's perhaps surprising is that there isn't a more militant privacy movement in the face of all this intrusiveness. The fact is, that in many ways, loss of privacy is largely taken for granted today.
In the age of social media and reality television, people are mostly glad to relinquish their privacy in exchange for attention and perhaps fame. Consumers, for their part, enjoy certain benefits as they give up privacy. Retargeted advertising, though it annoys some people, also provides consumers with relevant offers. Being reminded of an item you left in your cart can be a bit disconcerting but it's also convenient if it's something you really want.
Younger generations grew up with the internet and, in some cases, social media. Millennials assume that companies are collecting their data. Recent surveys reveal that millennials have complicated and somewhat contradictory views about privacy. On the one hand, they don't worry as much about companies storing their data. On the other hand, they are cynical about corporations' motives and tend to believe that privacy will only erode further in the future. Overall, it seems that young people, while having ambivalent feelings about privacy, simply see its diminishing as a fact of life today.
The Future of Online Privacy
Laws and regulations regarding the internet are constantly changing. Currently, for example, legislation proposed by the Trump administration removes existing privacy protection and allows internet providers the right to sell personal information to marketers. Only time will tell if future laws will give companies even greater freedom to collect data or if the pendulum will swing back in the other direction, giving consumers more control over their data.
Just as important as legislation are public attitudes about privacy. We're living in an age when people expect that everything online is public. Even when privacy is threatened, consumers do little to protect it. In this respect, the idea of websites capturing cookies and companies using retargeting seems less creepy than it did at first. At the same time, this doesn't mean that businesses can simply assume that they can do whatever they want with customers' data. The way in which they use the data is really crucial. For example, the way someone reacts to retargeted ads depends on the context and how relevant the ad is. If it helps to connect you with the right product, you see it as helpful. On the other hand, if it misses the mark, you're more likely to resent it.
All in all, people are increasingly accepting the fact that information on the internet is public and, to a large extent, up for sale. This doesn't mean they're always happy about it. How they feel largely depends on how transparent companies and marketers are in their use the information they've acquired.