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The End of Big Data?

Written By Jon Budington

March 12, 2021

In 1517, a little known monk named Martin Luther wrote a paper calling out some questionable practices of the Catholic Church. He nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral. This story would have been lost to history if not for a new technology introduced only 50 years earlier by the German inventor, Johann Gutenberg. Unbeknownst to Luther, a local printer acquired a copy of the Theses and printed thousands of copies. The printing press set Luther’s ideas free, fundamentally changing beliefs on a continental scale. The press is also credited with the breakup of the Roman Catholic Empire, the Thirty Years’ War, and the resulting deaths of nearly half the German population. All this from an idea and a printing press. Imagine if Martin Luther had access to Twitter.

Gutenberg’s press – the original disruptor of belief and world order.

The smartphone is a printing press on steroids, and these devices, along with the platforms that live on them, are being examined in a world that seems to be shredding old beliefs. Facebook, Google, Pinterest and Youtube are often described through their utility: a social media platform, a search engine, a shared shopping window or a video delivery site. But in reality, they are all advertising platforms. We, the product, are given free access in exchange for full surrender of our behavioral data. On the surface, this seems like a fair exchange. We gain tremendous efficiency out of these devices and platforms. But the consequences of this Faustian bargain are showing the ugly side of big tech.

In the excellent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, former Google employee Tristan Harris demonstrates how Google provides different prefill options for common search terms based on a user’s search history and location. While many see Google as a digital fount of knowledge—benignly providing the best possible information like a massive library—Harris describes something very different. He explains that Google rewards users by providing the information they are individually looking for, keeping users online for longer periods to view more advertisements. So now imagine a librarian who uses your political beliefs, social leanings and demographic data to curate a reading list that feeds your individual newfound beliefs. Providing different answers to the same questions breeds chaos. Would we have a storming of the Capitol, a mysterious QAnon sorcerer, or a global run on Gamestop without our smartphones and social media?

Facebook made me do it! / Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Apple To The Rescue

In Brussels last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook pronounced, “We at Apple believe privacy is a fundamental human right.” Cook explained his thinking at a January meeting of European privacy commissioners. His keynote address was indirectly aimed at Facebook and Google and their use of the ios IDFA (identifiers for advertisers) feature, the tags that track behavior across multiple apps while using an iPhone. Apple is planning to allow users to opt out of this tracking, and businesses like Facebook and Google are prepared to go to war over it. Facebook has deployed full page broadsides and television advertisements to promote their platform’s advertising value for small businesses. Cook has been advocating for new rules on data privacy and a level playing field for all device manufacturers. But where will these legislative ideas come from? We’ve all witnessed members of Congress struggling to ask good questions about the very technology they hope to reign in. Fortunately, Europe has provided some guidance.

Them’s fightin’ words. / Credit: Facebook

Introducing GDPR

If you asked me a year ago for my cookie policy, I would have replied “eat them.” I love a good cookie. But today, we are all scrambling to conform to GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation passed by the European Union in 2016. Our beloved user tracking (third-party cookies) are going away, and our remaining data (first-party cookies) will require an awkward Surgeon General-like warning, including the option to opt out. Google has already announced Chrome won’t support third-party cookies after 2022; they will be joining Apple’s Safari, which never allowed browser tracking. So now, when I go shopping for that new pair of Ecco shoes, I won’t see a week’s worth of Ecco advertisements pasted on every website I visit and social feed I scroll.

Tates Oatmeal Raisin are an easy opt-in. Others? Not so sure.

What’s a marketer to do?

Let’s face it. We’ve been living in the wild west of big data advertising, and it has created some great opportunities. But it’s also created some of the biggest divides in our political and social fabric. The data pendulum is now swinging towards privacy. California followed the EU’s lead and passed the California Consumer Protection Act in 2020. Last month, Virginia passed its own data protection law which is now waiting for signature, and legislation is brewing in New York, Minnesota and Washington. We need to prepare for change. I’m not the Luddite predicting a return to billboards and dropping flyers from a plane as data has become the essential component of a good marketing campaign. My own business depends on it. At the same time, I think there is an opportunity to pause and make better use of the data we control—our own client databases. Shaman who claim to have the ability to append behavior profiles or implement machine learning through their systems will soon be breaking the law. Good marketing will require the hard work of understanding our customers and their needs. With some curiosity, empathy, and psychology, we can once again feel confident in our marketing abilities to move business forward.