Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Freedom has its price

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

LONDON - The behavioural targeting furore should not obscure online ads' role in democratising the internet

Online advertising has been an enormously successful market in the UK, worth more than £2bn last year, and accounting for the biggest spend per capita in the world.

We also have the most competitive market for search advertising in the world - even the US looks to us for experience.

But what has this done for 'the man on the Clapham omnibus'? A bunch of media folk have made big money - what about the average Joe?

The truth is, something remarkable. Everyone, regardless of their means, has access to a depth and breadth of inform-ion that was previously accessible only to the well-connected or wealthy.

Internet advertising has funded this, because people don't want - and often can't afford - to pay. It has given them content, from Yahoo! Finance to The Sun. It has made information easy to find, through search engines. It has given a voice to the consumer, through blogs, forums and review sites. It has reinvigorated politics, with thousands of Facebook groups supporting Barack Obama's successful bid for the US presidency. And it has bankrolled an explosion in communication, with web-based messaging and email.

It gave all this to us for free.

People fought for years for a 'freedom of information' act in the UK, to liberate knowledge from the grasp of the few and place it in the hands of all of us.  But the internet has made information truly free. Free is a great leveller; a democratising force.

This is one of those rare occasions where everybody wins: publishers, ISPs, advertisers, consumers, society. We all benefit from the potential of the advertiser-funded model.

However, there is a small group of people who don't like this. This group remembers a time when the internet was a private community of geeks, technologists and early adopters; an exclusive place, where one could revel in being 'in the know'. The early web had grey backgrounds and blue lines around the pictures. There wasn't much advertising - neither was there much content.

Even as advertising has funded the democratisation of the internet, it has been resented by those who dominated its early days.

It seems they would like to turn the clock back to an Amish internet with no commerce. Moreover, they have seized on behavioural targeting as the Trojan horse for their plan.

As Nicholas Bohm, counsel for the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said last month on Radio 4's Click On, 'It's hopeless to try to suggest that there shouldn't be advertising on the internet.'

Hopeless? To suggest we remove virtually the entire basis of funding for the internet's success? Daft, perhaps.

There are legitimate concerns about online privacy, and a real debate to be had, but it is dominated by two groups.

One is the tinfoil beanie brigade, whose major concern is the CIA's attempts to control us with mind-rays, who fuel the misinformation rumour-mill ('Phorm is a front for the Russian mafia'). The other is the 'advertising is evil' mob, who think marketers are using our cunning to dupe them, and that advertising is a waste of money better spent on real ale and beards.

It's time for a real debate about the implications of behavioural targeting for privacy, to hear the genuine concerns of consumers and to examine the veracity of the claims.

But if we're going to have that debate, consumers need to be better informed.  It's up to the industry to equip them with that knowledge, because the alternative is rumour, ill-informed conjecture and paranoia.

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on...   the Foundation for Information Policy Research


  • FIPR was founded in 1998 by Ross Anderson and Roger Needham, and claims to study 'the interaction between IT, government, business and civil society'.
  • It focuses its initiatives on three key areas: ecommerce and e-government; intellectual property and the public domain; and international law and the internet.
  • It was instrumental in passing the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which prevents warrantless web surveillance and transfers financial liability for information-gathering from ISPs to the Home Office.
  • It was a founding member of European Digital Rights, an association that 'defends civil rights in the information society'. It has 25 member organisations from 16 European countries.
  • FIPR opposed digital media company Phorm's use of consumer behaviour tracking followed by targeted online marketing.
  • It has led international workshops on topics such as electronic voting, identity fraud and online copyright.


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