Writing in The New Republic, David Dayen says "The surveillance economy should die. This manner of advertising doesn’t serve the public and it’s not even clear it serves advertisers." It's an intriguing idea: let's return to the era of mass media. Rather than conjure up complicated schemes to regulate entities like Facebook, just remove the incentive for corporations to spy on our every click. Want to reach a relevant audience? Advertise on a website that has one, not in a mystery-meat ad-targeting network. Compelling content would once again be king. Birds would sing and flowers would bloom.
It seems unlikely, though. Once a system is in place that delivers up oceans of cash, the recipients don't let go of it without a fight. Just look at our broken medical care system. There's not sufficient political will to make so radical a change when the benificiaries of the system are allowed to channel cash into the coffers of the very politicians who would need to act. And we might find that a ban on targeted advertising has unanticipated consequences with stunning costs.
So we can't rely on politicians, but individually there are some things we can do:
- Block third party cookies.
- Opt out of tracking on Google, Bing and Yahoo.
- Use the Ghostery browser extension to block known trackers.
These steps aren't perfect, and the ad networks are doing everything in their power to defeat them, using techniques such as browser fingerprinting. You always have the nuclear option: Install an ad blocker. I don't like that, because advertising -- especially local advertising -- can be valuable information, and because eliminating legitimate ad revenue from subsidizing content sites amounts to throwing out the baby with the bath water. But you can whitelist websites whose advertising practices are not abusive. If you can find them.