On the most prominent day in American football, everyone opts into advertising. Brands invest in the moment, enlisting celebrities and perfecting creative executions to have the greatest possible impact—whether to entertain, shock, or pull at our heart strings. As we prepared to see our own commercial go live, we were watching closely to observe what Big Tech would say or not say about the issues closest to our hearts at Dashlane: data privacy and security.
It’s no secret that Big Tech trades on our information, that in fact, the whole “free” internet is ad-supported, and we’re really paying for it with our personal data. Google and Facebook have built powerful empires by simply declaring our personal experience their own property. Amazon is busily engaged in building the most robust profile of you they possibly can in order to serve you the perfect ad for their perfect product at the likewise-perfect time. Big Tech has given these practices a new name, behavioral data, and slapped predictive analytics on top of it all, letting interested parties place bets on what we will do now and in the future. This information is used to influence the choices we make—what we buy, what we read, and who we align ourselves with—eroding our personal autonomy. And when the same technologies can be applied to achieve guaranteed political outcomes, our democracy itself is endangered.
Viewed through this reality of surveillance capitalism, last Sunday’s commercials from Google, Facebook, and Amazon take on a new light.
Of the three ads, Google’s is by far the most interesting, operating from a greater sense of self-awareness. It seems to consider the growing discontent people feel over being monetized and manipulated. The narrative follows an aging husband using Google Assistant to recall details about his deceased wife. In this way, the ad invites us to voluntarily submit the intimate details of our lives, demonstrating what Google will deliver in return. Still, we wonder whether Loretta would have enjoyed having every personal trait and preference exploited for targeted marketing purposes. (Cut to: spammy ads for fishing gear following her husband all over the web.)
Even so, overwhelmingly people responded well to the ad, which speaks to how normalized the bargain we strike with Big Tech has become. Ultimately, the ad leaves one feeling choked up but cheated. When a company whose business model depends on exploiting private parts of our lives uses the most intimate of these details to elicit an emotional response, it’s unsettling.
True to form, Facebook’s commercial doesn’t attempt to acknowledge any issue whatsoever. In a rah-rah anthem celebrating community, the ad blatantly and disturbingly ignores the fact that its platform has been ground zero for political microtargeting, creating echo chambers wherein people are strictly fed content that serves to shore up their already-held beliefs. Combined with Facebook’s refusal to fact-check political ads and the subsequent spreading of misinformation, Facebook has had the exact opposite effect of bringing communities together—rather stoking tensions and entrenching hyper-partisanship. The commercial is tone-deaf at best.
Pasting over a different reality of life under Big Tech, Amazon’s Ellen-led commercial paints a lighthearted and funny picture of what life was like “before we had Alexa,” the company’s voice assistant. The spot illustrates the things Alexa now does that were once accomplished by people—either through interacting with another human or our own personal efforts. The slapstick humor serves to distract us from the fact that not only are we not-so-gradually paring away avenues for engaging with the physical world, but the interactions we would have had with others are now logged and leveraged to make it easier for Amazon to sell us products. (Not to mention the potential privacy nightmare that would ensue were those logs hacked.)
The truth is, we in the business community all operate within the reality of surveillance capitalism. If you want to run a successful company, you can’t escape using some form of advertising technology, which includes targeting people based on data they often don’t even know they’ve “shared.” As venture capitalist turned Big Tech watchdog Roger McNamee puts it, “This is a catastrophe that we’re all facing, and we don’t necessarily have a vocabulary for it, because the business model that Facebook and Google have created is something we’ve never seen before.”
Just because this is all unprecedented doesn’t make it inevitable. Big Tech would like us to believe that if we want digital technology, surveillance operations are the price we simply must pay. And we all do pay—and will continue to pay—until we collectively demand better.
To put it even more bluntly, at Dashlane, we ourselves are participating in this toxic system. While we never monetize our own users’ data—and by design, can’t even see it—the reality of digital advertising today means that in order to reach the people who truly want and need us, we’re benefitting from the questionable data ethics of others.
It’s this fundamental incompatibility with our beliefs about privacy and autonomy that drives us to innovate toward an internet that isn’t ad-supported. We’re an independent company founded on the belief that people deserve control over their own digital identity. Today, that means giving our users the tools to opt out of the surveillance economy as much as possible. Tomorrow, we’ll continue building a future that depends less and less on advertising technology—a future in which sustainable business models like ours become the norm and not the exception.