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…