How Online Experience Varies by Purchasing Power

How Online Experience Varies by Purchasing Power

When people discuss issues with data privacy, class ranking is rarely part of the conversation. Even though the internet has been a markedly business-driven project for some years now, the old perception endures that URL life isn’t getting marked by the same dividing lines that mark IRL society. However, this is false. The realization that data privacy gets inextricably tied to economic status is becoming more widely accepted.

Predatory Advertising

As the old technology adage goes: when the product is free, you are the product. Nowhere is this truer than online. Those with less disposable income are prone to having data leveraged in a more aggressive and potentially predatory fashion. Moreso than those who are affluent. Under previous lax data regulation, the robust flow of third-party data meant that advertisers could know with near-certainty the sort of online users that might be vulnerable to risky purchase propositions. In other words, they could target and exploit weak consumers with impunity.

A recent New Republic article highlighted some of the industries that are engaged in predatory online advertising practices. Among the culprits are bookmakers, payday loan companies, and for-profit colleges. It cites author Cathy O’Neil’s claim in the book Weapons of Math Destruction. “A potential student’s first click on a for-profit college website only comes after a vast industrial process has laid the groundwork.”

Advertisers can use anything from Google search history to educational questionnaire data. It data used to target individuals at their moment of peak susceptibility. It’s not that advertisers couldn’t use these techniques to target more affluent consumers. It’s that more affluent consumers are less driven to make such risky purchases, which get often borne from economic desperation. Furthermore, poorer consumers are more likely to have their information washing around ad-targeting databases. It’s because they’re more likely to fork over data for free access. The net result is, in the words of Michael Fertik, “the rich see a different internet than the poor.”

Higher Standards of Privacy

Through this lens, one begins to understand the impact of recent and forthcoming data regulation. It’s not a flat line across classes. It should work to disproportionately decrease the vulnerability of poorer online consumers. Especially because they are the most vulnerable to exploitation in the first place. Governments will continue increasing control over the use of data, and there will be the decreasing ability of companies to license third-party data without consumers’ knowledge. Combine both of those with increased penalties for data processors that violate their rights, and consumers will be less susceptible to predatory advertising and more in control of the data that they hand to companies.

Of course, no one assumes that new data regulation will magically turn profit-seeking enterprises into virtuous pursuers of the highest common good. However, we at Ethyca believe that organizations showing commitment to a higher standard of privacy protection will be rewarded in the long run by increasingly data-savvy consumers. With this in mind, beyond legally-required data practices, we recommend that companies make an effort to spell out all the data processing activities that they undertake on owned properties – to actively educate, in other words. Here at Ethyca, we settled on a “Nutrition Table”-style visualization that we think is crisp and instructive. Got a better idea to keep users informed? Feel free to describe in the comments! 

Published from our Privacy Magazine – To read more, visit privacy .dev