One of the fastest-growing online businesses is the business of spying on Internet users. Using sophisticated software that tracks people's online movements through the Web, companies collect the information and sell it to advertisers.
Every time you click a link, fill out a form or visit a website, advertisers are working to collect personal information about you, says Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. They then target ads to you based on that information.
On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Turow — the author of the book The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth -- details how companies are tracking people through their computers and cellphones in order to personalize the ads they see.
Turow tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that tracking is ubiquitous across the Internet, from search engines to online retailers and even greeting card companies. A recent Valentine's Day card sent to his wife, for instance, contained trackers from 15 separate companies.
"[Advertisers] might make inferences about me and romance, they might make inferences — right or wrong — about my age, they might know where I did this — because of some sense of where my computer is, my IP address," he says. "There are a lot of things they can infer about me even from [a greeting card]."
But advertisers are not just limited to tracking your Internet browsing, says Turow. They're also trying to connect what you do on phones and other mobile devices, which are typically tied to an individual user and account.
"In the holy grail vision of this," says Turow, "the idea of what you do on mobile should be connected to what you do on the Internet, and what you do on the Internet should be connected to what you do on your iPad, and eventually all of this will converge on what you watch on television."
But right now, says Turow, advertisers are still in the beginning stages of tracking users. He says he still receives ads for dating sites — despite being happily married.
"We're at the beginning of this new world," he says. "It's like the beginning of the airplane industry. Things screw up, and yet we have to look down the line because we're going to have Boeing 747s down the way."
Using The Social Space To Market Ads
Google is a leading innovator in the advertising world. Turow explains how the search engine makes money through online ads in search results as well as through contextual display advertisements (aka banner ads) located on various websites.
"Increasingly, Google uses information they've collected about you to determine which ads to show you," he says. "Recently Google announced they're going to merge all of their properties — and everything they have about you with almost all of their properties — so they will use what they know about you through Gmail, through regular Google search and through other Google properties to figure out what ads to show you."
Facebook also uses what you like on its site to target ads, says Turow, but it's mainly marketing toward your friends.
"Let's say somebody likes Twinkies on Facebook," he says. "Twinkies will then buy an ad from Facebook. And the ad will say, 'Joe Turow likes Twinkies.' And it will be called a sponsored story, and it will go to all of my friends on the side of their Facebook page."
Companies hope that your friends' preferences will also become your preferences, Turow says.
"It's implicit that if 'Joe Turow likes Twinkies' you might like them, too," he says.
Sites like YouTube, meanwhile, are displaying advertisements before and during videos. YouTube — which is owned by Google — is in the process of developing more than 100 professional content streams with partners like Madonna, Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Zuiker, the creator of the CSI TV series. The company hopes the new professional videos will keep YouTube's visitors on the site longer — and attract more advertising dollars.
"Advertisers are currently wary about putting ads around nonprofessional videos," Turow says, "so video on the Internet is a big area."
But whether or not ads are effective, he says, is still a murky issue.
"It used to be that [successful advertisements were measured] in click-throughs," he says. "But a lot of people point out that people may make up their minds after seeing the ads over time without clicking. Only a very small percentage clicks. So [media] online says, 'We don't have to prove clicks. There are other ways an ad proves its power.' "
Advertisers today try to figure out the attribution, or value, of a stream of advertisements during a person's hunt for a product, he says.
"If you're going after shoes, for example, it isn't just the final click that caused you [to buy the shoes] but maybe 15 different searches, seeing different kinds of ads," he says. "And can [they] track you while you do that? That's what I call the holy grail."
Turow says this new age of digital advertising raises concerns about what companies know about people, and what they can then do with that information.
"Some of them are really essential things, like, do you have diabetes? Are you a certain age that they may not want to hire you? What's your financial situation?" he says. "Will you be able to pay your mortgage?"
Turow says companies can then make certain inferences about people's behavior.
"I'm concerned about ... social discrimination," he says. "... In an everyday world where companies are deciding [how] I'm targeted, making up pictures about me, I'm getting different ads and different discounts and different maps of even where I might sit in an airplane based on what they think about me."
In the future, Turow says, you might be placed into "reputation silos" by advertisers, who will then market products to you accordingly.
"It has a lot of ramifications of how we see ourselves and how we see other people," he says. "... And this is part of another issue we have to think about, which is information respect. Companies that don't respect our information and where it comes from are not respecting us, and I think moving into this new world, we have to have a situation where human beings define their own ability to be themselves."
On the categories advertisers use to track you online
"Most of them have to do with demographics like age and gender and income. Some of them have to do with where you live, which can be very specific to particular neighborhoods sometimes. Some of them are weird, like socially organic eaters, but that has to do more with how companies make inferences about how you act. ... Go to a company called Acxiom on the Web. You will see a catalog of maybe 100 pages of the kinds of things that this company sells about all of us. They sell whether you look for diabetic stuff online, whether you're interested in orthopedic products, whether you've gone on vacation. They will sell what kinds of credit cards you have. And all of this is perfectly legal, and it can be used for online targeting as well as offline targeting."
On how apps can store and transmit information in your phone's address book
"It remains to be seen how many companies took out and take out that data and what is done with them, but you can see that it could give you an enormous amount of stuff. ... You can look at a person's camera and actually turn it on if you wanted to. A person might notice that the camera's on, but you could look at his friends or her friends and identify them if you wanted to, in a certain kind of world. You could look at the person's photos, contact lists. That's potentially the case with what people have been saying about the Apple iOS."
On Twitter and other companies gathering information from people's address books on their iPhones
"Social media is all about relationships. If you want to find people's relationships, an address book is the best place to go. It's like if you want to rob a bank, go where the money is."
"The amount of money Facebook gets per user from advertisers is not nearly the amount of money that Google gets. But the potential is there, and that's why Wall Street has been going after them.
"They gather everything that you do on Facebook. Facebook scarfs it all up. We know that Facebook has the ability and does target you on their website in an enormous number of ways. They don't give your name to any of the advertisers — it's all done anonymously. I'm not a fan of the distinction between anonymity and nonanonymity. ... If you're Joe Schmoe online or they know your real name or they give you an identification number — and so much of our lives is done online — in the end it doesn't matter. You're treated like a person who they know with all of the possible discriminatory activities we've talked about."
On online media
"I would argue that the 20th century taught people that content is cheap. Because on television and radio it was free, in newspaper and magazines, they got huge amounts of stuff paying very little. And as a consequence, when the world starts changing and there's a lot more competition because there's no longer one place to get news in print, the notion of paying for a lot of people became anathema."
"They believe in privacy as [a] human right. And that's the interesting thing about how [the upcoming] Commerce Department report is positioned: as a right. There are some advocates who don't like what they see in the policy because they think it's too loose. But the very fact that it's called a right is interesting rhetorically. Some people would say they're moving in the right direction."
On data-mining and politics
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're moving away from the world of "Mad Men," in which Don Draper comes up with poetic TV ads with universal appeal. Sure, there are still Don Drapers out there, but in the new digital world, advertisers are trying to figure out how to tailor ads specifically to your needs and send those ads to you on your computer.
In order to know who you are and what you want, advertisers are trying to find out all about what you do on the Internet. They're buying information from data marketers who are finding ways to track you without you being aware of it through digital tracking tools like cookies.
Cookies are text files that allow marketers to recognize a computer and track the user's online movements. My guest, Joseph Turow, has been tracking the trackers, studying how you're being followed by data marketers and how advertisers are using that information. His new book is called "The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth." Turow is a professor of communication and associate dean for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School.
Joseph Turow, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JOSEPH TUROW: Thank you.
GROSS: So I am unaware, usually, of how I'm being targeted by advertisers, on how I'm being tracked by advertisers. But one thing I am aware of, since it's very hard for me to find shoes that fit, I'm on shoe websites fairly often, sometimes I'll be on a site and suddenly all the shoes I've recently looked at are kind of circling around on a carousel, as if they're saying to me: Hey, you looked at me, you looked at me, you said you might buy me, so like buy me, like here I am, like buy me.
TUROW: That's great.
GROSS: Like you looked at me. And they just keep circling and circling and circling. Not such a big deal. I'm sure you can top me.
TUROW: Well, I can, actually. Most recently, on Valentine's Day, I sent my wife a Valentine's Day card through Blue Mountain, which is what I pay for, and it was card where a walrus talks to her and says, you know, Happy Valentine's Day.
Then she sent me a return saying thank you. I clicked on what she received, and I have a program on my computer called Ghostery, which lets me know what the companies that put cookies on - and tags on my machine are doing. And I got 15 companies that were tracking the fact that I had opened that Valentine's Day card.
It's quite possible she had companies doing exactly the same thing on her end. And we don't know what these companies are tracking, but I know them, and they cover people from across the Web. Some of them are really big companies like Microsoft and DoubleClick, which is owned by Google. Some of them are companies that most people outside the industry never heard of.
But these are tracking everything you do, including, obviously, Valentine's Day cards.
GROSS: So what would they do with that information? They know that you sent somebody a Valentine's Day card. They may or may not know that somebody is your wife.
TUROW: Uh-huh. They could - if it's possible to know that my wife opened it, and it came from me, they could track that relationship, and there are companies that specify and are really interested in relationships building and whether you do that.
They might make inferences about me and romance. They might make inferences, right or wrong, about my age. They might think about - they might know where I did this because they have some sense of where my computer is, my IP address. There are a lot of things that they can infer about me even from this.
But it's not this one seemingly trivial issue. If you combine that with what they know about me everywhere else I go and what they may have bought about me, some of these companies, from outside companies that track what people do offline, even anonymously, eventually they have hundreds of data points that could be used to sell me things, to send me discounts, ultimately even to change the entertainment agenda and news agenda that I get.
GROSS: So your book is in part about a whole new industry of ad buying, an industry that's collecting information and then targeting, very specifically, ads to potential customers, people that these companies think are perfect for the product.
GROSS: And it's much more targeted, advertising is much more targeted than it's ever been. Like, how are marketers collecting so much information about us?
TUROW: There are a lot of different ways. Part of it is we're living in a digital world, and the importance of understanding that idea is that digits are transferable across platforms. So there are problems with some of what I'm going to say now, but in the Holy Grail vision of this, the idea is that what you do on mobile should be able to be connected to what you do on the Internet. What you do on the Internet should be able to be connected to what you do on your iPad. And eventually, and this is the real Holy Grail, all of this will converge on what you watch on television.
GROSS: Let me just back up a second. Like as users, we want all our devices to be interconnected.
GROSS: But you're saying for advertisers this is really a gold mine.
TUROW: Yes, it is, and they say it that way. And it's not - what I'd like to point out is we're at the beginning of this new world. It's 15, 20 years old at the most. Think about how this is going to be 10, 15, 20 years from now.
GROSS: So you gave us an example of how you were being tracked when you sent your wife a Valentine's Day card. Give us some examples of what ads are coming to you.
TUROW: Well, I've gotten ads recently based on my age, OK? Particularly for some reason having to do with social dating sites, possibly...
GROSS: You're married, wait a minute.
TUROW: Yes, I'm married, but I have a student - and this is where things get really weird. I have a student who's doing research on social dating sites, and I've probably gone online to check some of the stuff that he's been doing, to look at some of his work, and somehow they've made inferences about me.
And I don't know exactly how they've gotten my age, but they're converging data around that, and I've been getting a bunch of things about marriage - about dating, I should say. The other things I've been getting have to do with the use of various news sites.
I was looking, for example, at buying a new lens for my camera, and most people have this experience where you get the same ad over and over wherever you go for the same thing. Now, it doesn't always work well even from their standpoint.
So for example, in this particular case I bought the lens, but I bought it over the phone.
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GROSS: So they don't know.
TUROW: They didn't know this. I bought it from the same company. So they kept this darn ad for a couple of weeks. So I guess the point is, this is not necessarily accuracy we're talking about. It's still very messy. Advertisers still are trying to figure this all out.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joseph Turow. He's the author of the new book "The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth." And the new advertising industry he's talking about is targeted online advertising, how the advertisers get information from you and then target you with ads.
So let's talk about some of the state-of-the-art ways that have been developed in this new age. Let's start with Google, because they've been incredible innovators in the advertising world. When you Google something, on the right-hand side are ads. On the left-hand side is, like, the search stuff, but on the right-hand side what you usually get now is related ads.
TUROW: And that's where Google makes its great proportion of money, through paid ads.
GROSS: And how does that work?
TUROW: It's an auction process. They won't tell you their secret sauce. But basically let's say I'm an advertiser, and I'm interested in selling a certain kind of toy, OK? I bid for a key word. Let's say it's a car, a toy car. So I might write toy car, and if I win the bid, my ad shows up when people write the words toy car. OK?
And it's gotten a little more complicated now. Google will look to see if your previous ads worked, meaning if they click, if people click on them. The percentage of clicks is not very high, we're talking under one percent most of the time. But if you think of the billions of times people come to Google, it adds up pretty quickly.
I should say that Google makes money also with something called display advertising, which is not the stuff you see on the side or at the very top. Display advertising has to do with a network that Google has of millions of sites. So they will actually - their computers will read sites, and if you, for example, write books about flu, Google will find sites - if you go to a particular site, an ad will pop up from Google that has to do with an advertiser interested in the flu ad, maybe some medical advertiser.
So that's called contextual display advertising, and increasingly Google uses information they've collected about you to decide what particular ads to show you, not just the context of the ad. In fact, recently Google announced they're going to merge all of their properties so that they will use what they know about you from Gmail, what they know about you from regular Google search, what they know about you from other Google properties to figure out what ads to show you.
GROSS: Wow, and so if you're an advertiser, how much would you have to pay for that kind of ad. Do you know?
TUROW: It's very hard to tell.
GROSS: Is that an auction process too, or it's competitive?
TUROW: The - it's an auction process, yes, and it's often based on a cost-per-thousand. It's not necessarily - I should say in the paid ads you only - if you're an advertiser you only pay for the click, OK? Typically, when you're talking about display advertising, the display, it is shown, and you pay for the right to show it, it doesn't matter whether a person clicked or not.
GROSS: What are some of the other innovations by other companies in this new era of digital advertising?
TUROW: What a lot of companies are trying to do is to figure out how people do things in the social space. The sort of buzzword today is social. And they like Facebook because the good thing about Facebook from advertisers' standpoint is that people talk about their products.
So you've heard of fan pages on Facebook. If I'm a company, I can set up a fan page. Coca-Cola, I think, has the biggest fan page. Typically, people go to fan pages because there are discounts there, but there may be other reasons to go to a fan page.
If you go to a fan page, a lot of companies will say to you, you can get this discount if you like us, and if you like someone on Facebook, like a fan page on Facebook, automatically that information might go to your friends, the people who are friends with you on Facebook. So that's like free advertising.
And so increasingly what companies are trying to do is to build up pages, fan pages on Facebook, get people to like them, and as a result in many cases the friends get to see that their friends have become friends of that particular fan page.
Now, Facebook is dampening a lot of that in some of the new ways they're doing it because they don't want to encourage this stuff too much. The problem is it's free. Now what Facebook is trying to do is to get companies to buy more ads.
And so what they do is they say if someone has liked you as a company – say, Twinkies, OK, somebody likes Twinkies - Twinkies will then buy an ad from Facebook. And the ad will say: Joe Turow likes Twinkies. And it will be called a sponsored story. It goes to all of my friends on the side of the Facebook page and it will maybe even show my picture and say Joe Turow likes Twinkies, the implication being that you might too, because after all, Joe Turow is your friend.
GROSS: And would Twinkies have asked your permission to do that?
GROSS: So they're already doing this.
TUROW: Oh, yes. Oh, sure.
GROSS: So one of the things you describe is how advertisers are actually dividing us into these categories that are kind of weird. What are some of the categories we're being divided into?
TUROW: Well, most of them have to do with demographics like age and gender and income.
GROSS: Yeah, we're all used to that.
TUROW: Yeah, right. Some of them have to do with where you live, which can be very specific to particular neighborhoods sometimes. Some of them are weird, like socially organic eaters, but that has to do with more with what companies - how companies make inferences about how you act.
If your listeners want to, go to a company called Acxiom on the Web, A-C-X-I-O-M. Acxiom, write in Google, write Acxiom catalog, and you will see a catalog of maybe 100 pages of the kinds of things that this company sells about all of us.
They sell whether you've looked for diabetic stuff online, whether you're interested in orthopedic stuff. They will sell whether you've gone on vacation. They will sell what kinds of credit cards you have. And all of this is perfectly legal, and it can be used for online targeting as well as offline targeting. And they're only one company that does this.
GROSS: You describe how some advertisers divide people into the categories of target or waste. What does that mean?
TUROW: Target means the kinds of people they care about for a particular product or a particular lifestyle. Waste simply means you're inefficient from their standpoint.
GROSS: It's a waste of time to target you.
GROSS: Not that you're a waste of a human being.
TUROW: No, they wouldn't say that. But the idea is that it is a waste of time and, more importantly, a waste of money.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joseph Turow. He's the author of the new book "The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry" - that's the digital advertising industry – "Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth." And he's a professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joseph Turow. He's the author of the new book "The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth." And it's basically about how the ad industry is following your every move on your computer and your personal digital devices and trying to figure out how to advertise directly to you.
When advertising started on the Web, you know, it was like banner ads, and now we've seen so many different kinds of ads on the Web. And it's becoming increasingly frustrating to go to websites because you have to sit through videos. Pop-ups are not only there when you go onto the Web, but sometimes they just keep popping up as you read, and you feel like you're swatting away flies or something.
TUROW: Part of it depends on where you go, but you're right.
GROSS: And sometimes - yesterday I got one where I had to make it go away three times, and there was a voice that kept saying: Are you trying to get rid of me?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And I was thinking, yeah, I'm trying - definitely, like please, go away. And also, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to find the little X that you click to get rid of the ad.
GROSS: It's like you have to go search for it now. And I never pay attention to those ads. So it's just a nuisance. Now, I understand that sites need to make money, and I'm totally sympathetic with that. I mean, we fail - I mean, everybody who has a revenue...
GROSS: Stream, thank you, like understands that. And I know how newspapers have been struggling and everything. So I'm kind of sympathetic for the need, but then as a user it's frustrating. But anyways, talk about some of the new kinds of ads that we're seeing on the Internet.
TUROW: I suspect that the most important set of ads that we'll be seeing more and more are video ads. The rise of video on the Internet is exploding. Another big area is huge ads, targeted huge ads that cover the screen because the feeling is it's like a magazine environment, and it will grab people, and they might remember it.
The problem with banner ads, as you suggested, is that people have what's called banner blindness, and even with what's called rich media ads, it doesn't show up a lot in people's minds.
GROSS: And how are advertisers measuring the effectiveness of their ads?
TUROW: That's a big issue. It used to be, and it still is, to a large degree, click-throughs. But a lot of people point out, particularly supporters of...
GROSS: Click-through, meaning if you click on the ad, you count that as successful.
TUROW: Yeah, and maybe if you do something beyond that. But a lot of people who support what I call display ads, what the industry calls display ads, those big ads, will say people may make up their minds even seeing the ads over time without clicking, and a very small percentage clicks. And so newspapers and magazines online and on iPad say we don't have to prove clicks; there are other ways an ad has power.
And so the big thing in advertising today is to decide what's called attribution. How do we figure out the value of a stream of advertising in a person's hunt for a product? So if you're going after shoes, for example, it isn't just the final click that caused you to do it, the final ad, the final website, the final Google search, but maybe 15 different searches, having seen certain kinds of ads - and can we track you while you do that? That's what I suggested is the Holy Grail, what I call the long click.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about apps. I think early on apps weren't doing any of the advertising stuff, but apparently they are now, and this is news that has recently broken, that there are apps that are taking your addresses from your smartphone books and doing what with it?
TUROW: Well, Apple's operating system gives apps the capability to virtually look at everything on your phone. And the question that arises is how many advertisers are really using that. But...
GROSS: Well, Apple says it prohibits apps that collect or transmit users' personal data without their permission, but some apps are taking users' content and transmitting it without users' knowledge.
TUROW: Yeah, they have the ability to do it...
GROSS: And I think Apple says that they want to fix that, yeah.
TUROW: Stop, they're going to try to fix it. But they have the ability, they've always had the ability to do that, to look at your phone and everything in it. And I don't think most people knew that. The material I've read on the Web in sophisticated technology sites imply that people simply didn't pay attention to that possibility, except of course the developers.
And it remains to be seen how many companies took out and take out those data and what are done with them, but you can see that it would give you an enormous amount of stuff. I mean, frankly, in an age where even sometimes facial recognition can be important, you can look at a person's camera and actually turn it on if you wanted to.
Now, a person might notice the camera's on, but you could look at his friends or her friends and begin to identify them, if you wanted to, in a certain kind of world. You could look at the person's photos. You could look at the contact list. That's potentially the case with what people have been saying about the Apple iOS.
GROSS: According to the New York Times, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram are among the smartphone apps that gather information and personal address books.
TUROW: Which would make sense, because of what they do. Social media, again, is all about relationships. And if you want to find people's relationships, an address book is the best place to go. It's like if you want to rob a bank, go where the money is.
GROSS: Joseph Turow will be back in the second half of the show. His new book about targeted online advertising and online privacy is called "The Daily You."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Joseph Turow, author of the new book "The Daily You." It's about how data marketers are tracking your moves on the Internet, monitoring what websites you've been on, and selling that information to advertisers who want to send you digital ads based on your profile.
Turow is a professor of communication and associate dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School.
Let's talk about how all of this new kind of digital advertising, how these new systems are affecting content online, more specifically newspapers and magazines, because they've really been struggling to get a revenue stream that will enable them to keep publishing the way that they're used to publishing. The - I think the money that they used to get in the olden days from print ads is more than what they're capable of getting...
GROSS: ...in most instances from online advertising, plus so many sites the content is free, hence an existential dilemma for a lot of publications. So give us a sense of how you think online advertising is doing for content providers like newspapers and magazines. I hate calling them content providers.
TUROW: Yes. Well, the word is publishers now.
GROSS: Thank you.
TUROW: Yeah. Publishers are...
GROSS: That's so much better.
TUROW: That's all right. But publishers is a very broad term. If you say publishers to regular people, they tend to think of magazines, print magazines and newspapers.
TUROW: But today publishers means, I think, companies that create and distribute material wherever they are. So CBS online is a publisher.
TUROW: The real dilemma is multiple. I would argue that the 20th century taught people that content is cheap. Because on television radio is free, newspapers and magazines, they got huge amounts of the stuff paying very little, and as a consequence, when the world starts changing and there's a lot more competition - as you just suggested, because no longer is there one place in the city to get news and print, now you can go anywhere - the notion of paying for a lot of people became anathema. And we all know what happened to the music industry. And the dilemma for newspapers, even like The New York Times, is that despite the fact that they have millions and millions more people going online, it's harder to what they call monetize it than it is in print, and as a consequence there's lots of problems.
Beyond that, the notion of competition is great. I don't know if you've ever heard the term content farms.
TUROW: A content farm - they don't like this term - is a company like Demand Media, I think is the biggest one. There are others, Associated Content. A content farm is a company that creates articles primarily based on trending topics in search engines. So for example, let's say kittens, certain kinds of kittens become important in a search engine, a lot of people searching for kittens or kitten diseases, so the people will look at that who work for these companies and say, gee, let's find one of our freelancers to write an article about this. And as a consequence, these companies - from what I've read - come up with maybe 10,000 articles a day, articles as well as video now, and those are placed on their websites and on other websites that need articles on those particular subjects.
And the whole goal is to get people who are searching for those things to have them show up in those center results, which are called the organic search results. People will click on them, and those companies then will get ads if people click on the ads themselves. So what this does, it pushes traditional journalistic material lower on the food chain in terms of what shows up in people's minds, as you might say.
GROSS: So let's step back for a second. You think that this new age of digital advertising raises some serious concerns.
GROSS: What are your concerns?
TUROW: One has to do with what everybody calls privacy. And that has to do with simply having companies find out about you things that you might not want them to know. Some of them can be really essential things like, do you have diabetes? Are you a certain age that they may not want to hire you? What's your financial situation? OK. So there are a lot of issues that many people have brought up about the dangers of putting things online or having companies infer things about you. Will you be able to pay your mortgage?
I am also concerned about an area that fewer people have brought up, though some have, and that has to do with social discrimination. And that is the notion that in an everyday world where companies are deciding whether I'm target and waste, and making up pictures about me moving forward, and I'm getting different ads and I'm getting different discounts and I'm getting different even maps of where I possibly will sit in an airplane based upon what they think about me, I would call that social discrimination. And the potential moving forward for us to be in what I call reputation silos, where we are thought of in a persistent way by advertisers as opposed to what our neighbors are thought of has a lot of ramifications of how we see ourselves and how we see other people.
GROSS: Let me give an example that you use at the beginning of the book. You have the hypothetical family...
TUROW: It's hypothetic.
GROSS: Yeah. Hypothetical family...
TUROW: But quite possible.
GROSS: Quite possible. That goes to a lot of fast food restaurants and suddenly they start getting all these ads for like being overweight and for diabetes and for diets and stuff. No one has said that they're overweight. No one has said they have diabetes. Nobody said that that's a problem. But suddenly they're getting ads that this family perceives as really insulting, like they need to - like they're fat and they need to go on a diet.
TUROW: And by implication also used car ads, because the people who associate with those characteristics might not be as well off as people who associate with other characteristics.
GROSS: So you're getting this mirror, you're looking - if the advertising is a mirror, holding up a mirror to who you are, it's a really negative mirror.
GROSS: It's like you're fat. You need to go on a diet. You have diabetes and you can't afford to buy a car.
TUROW: And other people are going to benefit from this. So some people are going to get - the boss might be getting a Mercedes ad that says come in, we'll give you 50 bucks for a test drive. OK? Do we want a society - I don't have anything intrinsically against targeting. It's part of the world today. My biggest problem is that we have no clue that it's how it works and we have no control over it as individuals. We don't know where the categories come from. We don't know the stories that are being told about us. And we have no ability to control any of those stories. And do we really want to move into a world or our grandkids into a world where there's so much going on under the hood that has no relationship to who we are?
GROSS: Great questions, but do we have any choice? Do we have any control?
TUROW: My hope is that if people begin to think about this stuff more, we could make some regulations that would require companies to divulge more. It's not easy. Because when I talk to people about this, for example at Google or Microsoft, they'll say to me this is our lifeblood, why should we tell you how we know what we know about you because then our competitors will know? So they say it's trade secrets.
It gets to be a real problem. But in the broad sense I would say that this is part of another issue we have to think about, which is information respect. You know, companies that don't respect our ability to understand our information and where it comes from are not respecting us. And I think that, again, moving into this new world, we have to have a situation where human beings define their own ability to be themselves.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joseph Turow. He's the author of the new book "The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry" - that's the digital advertising industry - "Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth." And he's a professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Joseph Turow. His new book "The Daily You" is about how the data marketers are tracking your online movements and selling that information to advertisers. One of Turow's concerns is privacy. The Obama administration is expected to release a report - perhaps as soon as tomorrow - outlining its recommendations for protecting online consumer privacy.
What do you know about what this privacy rights policy might be?
TUROW: What I've heard is that it's going to be based on a Commerce Department report, which basically sets forth fair information practices that companies should abide by in the U.S. so that U.S. residents will feel comfortable going on the Web and so the U.S. will be able to deal with Europeans better in terms of how American privacy policies align with European privacy policies.
It's not going to be an exact alignment because the Europeans are much more careful about some of these things.
GROSS: Why is that alignment important?
TUROW: A lot of companies are having trouble with the idea of dealing with data in Europe if they come from the United States because the European countries will say you guys don't do the right stuff in the U.S., why should we trust you with our data? And so what they're saying is, you have to begin really aligning what you do. You have to make sure that the policies that you follow our close to the policies that we follow.
GROSS: Because the Europeans have stricter privacy policies than we do.
TUROW: They have. Yes. They believe in human rights, privacy as human right. And that's the interesting thing about the way the Commerce Department report is positioned, as a kind of right. There are some advocates who don't like what they see in the policy because they think it's too loose. But the very fact that it's called a right is kind of interesting rhetorically. Some people would say they're moving in the right direction.
GROSS: It's interesting, though - it seems to be coming from the direction of business...
GROSS: ...that it's important for business to have this privacy so it could do business in Europe.
TUROW: Yeah. It's a very interesting tension that exists. I think part of the reason the Obama administration is going with the Commerce Department report is they want to show people we care about business.
TUROW: This is not just about privacy in the public realm. But at the same time, the idea of not hurting these huge companies, bigger and bigger companies that make money off of data, is very important to the American government.
Google, Amazon, all these firms that are really engines of American growth now are engines that they care about but they know there's tension around it. And so having it through the lens of the Commerce Department may be a really nice rhetorical device to try to sew things through the needle.
GROSS: Do you expect companies like Amazon and Google to push back?
TUROW: I think the way it's going to be stated, it's not going to be so hard for them to follow it. Right now it doesn't seem that there's going to be anything mandatory, a lot of self-regulation, and as a consequence, it'll sound a lot better than the particulars when you look at it.
You'll be able to read privacy policies and get things away from privacy policies that say, gee, we care about your privacy but we're still going to take information about you.
GROSS: You think?
TUROW: Yeah. And I suspect there's going to be very little, what's called op-in - which is the notion that first they have to say can we do this. Can we take your information? Rather than don't take my information after they've started doing it.
GROSS: So you're saying this policy is likely to put the ball in the consumer's court to figure out how to say, no, I don't want you to take my information.
TUROW: Yes, exactly. Which is what happens.
GROSS: You know, ironically, you've pointed out that politicians are starting to use the same techniques that advertisers are to gather information. What's their purpose in gathering it?
TUROW: Well, politicians want to get votes. And they have begun to realize what consumer products companies realize, that if you get a lot of information about people you can predict how they might act or what they might believe, even to the point of what kind of car do people who might vote Republican have, versus Democrats?
GROSS: What information would they be buying?
TUROW: They could buy information about your purchases. They could buy information about whether you have children. They could buy information about what kind of car you have. There are lots of information out there that you might not volunteer on the Obama website, or any other campaign website, that a campaign can get, particularly if they have your name and then attach it to your voting records.
GROSS: So do you think that political campaigns are using cookies to track our movements on the Internet in the same way that advertisers are?
TUROW: They say they are.
GROSS: They say they are.
But it's clear they're also going out there and getting information from other companies to do work for them. And those companies may have particular information about individuals that they then use.
GROSS: Are they tailoring ads to people in the same way that a lot of advertising agencies are doing now?
TUROW: Absolutely. In the New York Times this week, there was an article that pointed out that Romney, for example, showed one kind of ad to people they knew were quote/unquote "committed voters" and another kind of commercial to people who they thought were not sure.
GROSS: So let's talk about another new digital development. Google apparently has been tracking what people are searching for through - in Safari, which is a different web browser than Google's. And Google has been tracking people's use of Safari on cell phones and computers. What's the point?
TUROW: The concern in the beginning was that Safari wasn't allowing what are called third parties to put cookies in the browser, unless there was a very good reason for it having to do with your wanting information from them. So Google figured out a way around it. The reason they wanted to do that is because they wanted to see if people were members of their Google + social site, social media activity.
But then they realized that once they did that, that is, allowed – tricked – the Safari browser into giving them information and allowing them to put the cookie in, they could put cookies in for everything that Google did. So they're getting incredible amounts of information about people that the Safari browser should not have been giving them.
When the Wall Street Journal revealed this, because of a Stanford's researcher's activities, Google stopped doing it. And - but it just shows the level of competition today is what's driving so much of what we've talked about. Companies that would not have done something five years ago, because of the competition between Facebook and Google and Twitter and Microsoft, it's driving a desire to know and a desire to find data that just wouldn't have existed without this level of this intense competition for the bits about us.
GROSS: Yeah. So they're competing to mine information about you and me.
TUROW: Competing to mine information and not worrying as much as they used to about the ethics of it - simply because of the competition. Google can't be what it wanted to be five years ago or Facebook is going to eat its lunch. And so what Google...
GROSS: You mean it can't be as idealistic as it wanted to?
TUROW: Right. I mean, they simply were proud of the idea that they did not knit together data across different Google platforms. And then they realized if they don't do that, they might have problems down the line. So now they're knitting together almost all of their activities so they can get a much more 360 degree view of all of us.
TUROW: It's not likely. It's not likely that it'll do that. I think what they might have to do is be a little more transparent about it, tell us a little bit more about what they're taking. Google says that it's doing that. You can go on Google sites and try to find out something about what they know about you but it's very hard to find.
GROSS: So I'm sure I'm not alone when I say this, but when I download a new program or a new app and there's a user agreement that comes up and you can either click that you want to read the 7,000 pages of the agreement or just accept, I just click accept.
GROSS: You know, there's no way I'm going to read it.
TUROW: That's a question about whether the courts will accept the idea that you accepted. Did you really accept it?
GROSS: Is privacy stuff within that, that user agreement?
TUROW: Yes. Oh, you can click on the privacy part of it.
GROSS: What does it mean?
GROSS: Are there any ways of opting out while still being able to download the program or the app?
TUROW: It depends on the company. I doubt it. I mean, why would a company – again, you're trading something for something else and if you want to use it, fine. If you don't, tough luck, you know? And the whole idea of living in a world where we have gotten used to the notion of paying little for something, that software, is part of what's driving this.
It's not the only thing, but part of what's driving us. Companies monetize us by selling us. So instead of paying money, we're paying with our bodies, as it were, and with notions about our bodies.
GROSS: All right. You've given us a lot to think about.
TUROW: Thank you.
GROSS: Joseph Turow, thank you so much.
TUROW: I appreciate it.
GROSS: Joseph Turow is the author of "The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, John Powers reviews the new documentary "Putin's Kiss" about a Russian teenager in a pro-Putin organization. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.