Antonio García Martínez’s Chaos Monkeys and Privacy

Here’s something you may not know: every time you go to Facebook or ESPN.com or wherever, you’re unleashing a mad scramble of money, data, and pixels that involves undersea fiber-optic cables, the world’s best database technologies, and everything that is known about you by greedy strangers.

Every. Single. Time.

The Federal Trade Commission staff recently recommended that Internet users use ad blockers to control online tracking. This no doubt, will attract controversy from the advertising Industry. Yet, the Commission could justify the recommendation by pointing to a new book written by Facebook’s (FB) former product manager for advertising, Antonio García Martínez (AGM).

AGM’s Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, is an outrageous, fantastic book. Some early reviews discuss its relevance to the advertising/publishing world. Indeed, if you are interested in learning why and how online advertising is a huge swindle, why publishers like the Times “live at the pleasure” of advertising platforms, and other sage advice, such as how to evaluate a startup, AGM’s book is a great read. Be forewarned: there’s a great deal of sexism, score settling, and braggadocio in the book. But I still liked it because AGM is a great writer. He even has a command of classical literature. There are few techies who can find a way to quote both Polybius and Debord in the same work.

There’s another reason to read this book: it provides insight into how FB’s product manager for ads thought about privacy. This is an important viewpoint, because product designers—not the lawyers and CPOs—are the ones who call the shots at many companies. AGM explains:

For my entire career at Facebook, I was embroiled in a rolling debate with the Facebook privacy and legal teams about what we could and couldn’t get away with, chiseling away at their legal trepidation, and trying to find some legal rubric that would forgive (or at least defensibly excuse) our next depredation with user data.

Michael Zimmer and I have argued that FB had mastered the public relations of privacy—that Zuckerberg was a “privacy Machiavelli.” A different view emerges from AGM; a confused attitude that ranges from indifference to privacy to finger pointing. How could Facebook be indifferent to privacy? AGM—like Zuckerberg—sees FB as a utility. Taken as such, it is not responsible for privacy problems. AGM argues that you do not blame the postal service for junk mail, nor AT&T for telemarketing. Similarly, the privacy invasions online are driven by advertisers, not FB. Facebook simply routes messages to you, whereas advertisers know what to route to you because they have watched you for decades through credit card purchases. AGM explains:

I submit that the role of modern-day Big Brother is actually played by companies you’ve likely never heard about. Companies with names like Axciom (sic), Experian, Epsilon, Merkle, and Neustar (among others). These are the companies that since the dawn of the direct-marketing age in the sixties and seventies have been tracking all of consumer America…

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And how did this enormous nationwide surveillance apparatus…come to exist? The mail, ladies and gentlemen…

AGM is correct that the direct mailers are voracious in their data collection. But does that mean that FB gets a pass? Well, according to AGM, early targeting on FB just didn’t work. This is because most of your activities have no commercial relevance:

Now imagine you have a written transcript of every conversation taking place…Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?

Well, it isn’t. Ask yourselves how often you mention anything of commercial import when you’re with friends…Actually, I know exactly how often; it’s one of the earliest studies we did when I got to Facebook.

The short version is “not terribly often at all.” Nobody says things like “I really love how these Adidas Adizero Boston Boost 5 shoes felt today…”

And there’s the problem of sarcasm and derogatory invocations of possibly commercially-relevant terms. AGM argues that “Obama,” for instance, is often proceeded by “fucking,” making it a less than opportune keyword for most advertising.

But FB’s inability to turn our conversations into gold does not absolve the company from its role in tracking everything. This is especially the case because as AGM explains, that joining personal data to cookies has reached a pinnacle with FB and Google:

…Facebook and companies like Acxiom and Datalogix have compared personal data (with none sharing actual data with the other, again via the miracle of hashing), and joined the universal FB user ID to the analogous IDs inside Acxiom, Datalogix, and Epsilon.

[…]

Facebook, Google, and others have achieved the holy grail of all marketers: a high-fidelity, persistent, and immutable pseudonym for every consumer online. Even better, they’ve joined that to your real-world persona…”

Later, AGM explains that the data join is ultimately about unifying the view of the customer—an extension of the old one-to-one marketing from the direct mail days:

That personal information is stored in a database, along with the browser cookies that corresponds to it, forming a bridge from real-world you to the browser version of you. It’s probably in hashed form, but that’s just privacy theater; if everyone agrees on the same hash function, it doesn’t matter how it’s stored.”

That join, between a cookie and personal information, is then sold and resold a bazillion times a day to whoever is willing to pay for it…

There’s nothing really new here. But wow, it is stated much more clearly than a privacy policy!

Here’s another attitude I hear in person but rarely see in print—that privacy people are just whiners who can be fooled about information flows by just suppressing ads. These whiners complain about ads, but won’t pay for the service. So why care about their concerns?

…Like infants who haven’t learned object permanence yet, Facebook whiners see an ad, the Facebook logo, and assume it’s all connected. Make the ad go away, and they don’t even think about it. Of course, what they should really be thinking about is how that ad got addressed, and what the advertiser, and not Facebook, knows about them.

Facebook is actually the least of their worries, and it’s about the only dog in the fight that ultimately cares about the user. Unsurprisingly, those who kvetch the most about irrelevant ads are also the same bellyachers who complain when ads are too good, and seem creepy. No doubt, the slightly technically savvy among them are also running ad-blocking software, and advocate against the increased data collection that would improve ads and make them more relevant. If they were to publish content themselves, or work in the business of delivering all of humanity’s digitized social life 24/7 all over the world, they’d realize there’s a human cost to that blue-framed browser tab, and it most certainly is not free. Ad blocking is tantamount to theft, or at the very least running a toll booth without paying.

Oh, and spare me your claims that you’d be willing to pay for Facebook instead of seeing ads…”

There’s much to quibble with here. AGM’s view misses a basic point from STS: that technical systems have values. In fact, we should blame the Postal Service for junk mail—the entire agency has long been devoted to delivering it; and as my early work showed, telephone companies played both sides of the telemarketing battle, selling both anti-sales call technologies and ones that could evade countermeasures. It would be a big mistake to overlook FB’s role in shaping its own system to complement the big/little brothers in data brokerage. In fact, that’s much of what AGM’s book is about!

AGM’s exposition is one of the strongest reasons to run a “tracker blocker,” as the FTC puts it. Too much coverage of Silicon Valley comes at the cost of “access journalism”—the reporters who whitewash or adopt a company’s frame on controversial issues. AGM’s unvarnished view, which too must be read with some skepticism, reveals the logic behind the total information awareness machines that Silicon Valley mints.

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