The New Netflix Docuseries Raises Serious Questions About Consumers’ Data Privacy
Political turmoil. Race riots. A global pandemic. Fake news. Extremism. A country divided.
While these things may sound like literary fodder for the likes of Orwell and Rand, they often comprise the unfortunate reality many people find themselves in every time they log onto their favorite social media platform.
They’re also the primary focus of Netflix’s new wave-making film, The Social Dilemma, a docu-drama that lays bare some of the darkest secrets of Silicon Valley. These secrets come from the mouths of a few surprising sources: former execs from Google, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and more. Despite the fact that the film graced the streaming giant’s top 10 list across multiple countries in recent months, many members of the general public have never heard of it.
In case you haven’t seen it yet (no spoilers here, we promise), the film consists of interviews from former tech giant execs, including Tim Kendall, Pinterest’s former president, and Tristan Harris, who was at one time a top design ethicist at Google. Sprinkled in between interviews is a portrayal of the real-life implications of big tech’s impact on society, sometimes metaphorically illustrated as tiny people behind the screen, influencing a consumer’s every thought.
In a stereotypical “good robot gone bad” narrative, these ex-execs (arguably some of the founding fathers of our current tech age) admit to initially feeling their work was for the good of society. However, as the film progresses deeper into the dark side of big tech, they quickly set the scene for a modern-day dystopia that’s being driven further into chaos and division, and at the helm is—you guessed it—big tech.
Where Does That Leave Us?
It’s clear that Netflix, and everyone involved in the film, is out to make a statement. Some media pundits are calling The Social Dilemma “the most important documentary of our time,” and they may be right, in terms of the eye-opening effects this has had on the general public.
But where we believe the film falls short is in its ending—a call for reform without tangible action steps, which is about as effective as a speed skater in slippers. While there are many things the average consumer can do to reverse society’s current trajectory, we at iFocus believe that the bulk of the responsibility lands on us—that is, entities whose revenue model revolves around utilizing this surplus of behavioral data.
So Is It True?
After watching The Social Dilemma (and taking a hot shower to wash off the heebie-jeebies), you’re probably asking yourself how much of what the film portrays is true. It’s a valid question, and one that’s somewhat difficult to answer.
In response to the film, Facebook argues that The Social Dilemma “buries [the impact of social media on our lives] in sensationalism.” Taking it one step further, the social media giant reiterates the same assertion it always does when being questioned about data collection and security—that Facebook is an “ads-supported platform,” and that said ads are what allow you as a consumer to connect with others for free. The crux of their argument also remains the same: they do collect data from their users for advertisers’ use, but no personally identifiable information (PII) is ever shared.
Unfortunately for Facebook, their response highlights only one of the primary underlying implications of the film—that tech giants are tracking and storing vast amounts of data without being forthcoming about how and why it’s used.
Contrast that with the report just published by antitrust proponents in the U.S. House of Representatives blasting tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple for abusing their power to achieve massive monopolies, often via the collection of user data, and consumers find themselves in the midst of quite the conundrum.
The Bottom Line
There’s a common saying in the tech world that goes, “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product.” While it’s not quite this simple, it is true that we as digital advertisers rely heavily on consumer behavior to craft effective marketing strategies.
Now, before you freak out, consider this. In dozens of recent surveys, consumers reportedly want a more personalized digital ad experience. In fact, a recent IAB presentation reported that 71% of consumers preferred ads that were targeted to their interests and shopping habits, and three out of four consumers prefer fewer, but more personalized, ads.
But here’s the kicker. A 2019 survey done by network security firm RSA Security found that only 17% of internet users surveyed thought it was ethical to track their online behaviors for the purpose of serving personalized ads. So consumers want a more personalized ad experience, but at what cost? You see the dilemma we digital marketers find ourselves in. How do we give consumers what they want without making them feel like their privacy has been compromised?
A Higher Standard for Data Privacy
All this being said, there’s one more statistic that we’re focusing on to better identify how to serve our clients while keeping consumers happy—in this same RSA survey, only 29% of respondents felt that sharing their data resulted in better product and service recommendations. While our team always strives to identify the most relevant consumers for our clients’ advertising campaigns, we’re constantly digging into these campaigns to create an even better ad experience.
Up to this point, we’ve made data collection and usage sound like a wholly negative matter for consumers. But having so much data available to advertisers isn’t all bad. It’s this data that allows us to give consumers the more personalized ad experience they reportedly desire, and it’s this same data that helps us identify inefficiencies in our targeting.
At iFocus, we always joke about being a bunch of data nerds behind screens, but honestly, we’re only half joking. On any given day, you can find our team members digging into various analytics platforms, measuring KPIs, and brainstorming new optimization strategies based on the data we’re seeing. Our “go the extra mile” mentality when it comes to ad targeting is a win-win-win situation for consumers, our clients, and us. More personalized ad targeting means more relevant ads for consumers; more relevant and personalized ads for consumers means more action taken on a client’s website and, ultimately, more revenue for the client; more revenue for the client means a happy client, which makes us happy, too. This winning formula can only happen with data.
Coming full circle, there’s one last important piece to this equation that we at iFocus are particularly stringent on, and that’s data privacy and protection. Not only do we hold ourselves to a higher standard of data protection than the market average, but we also strive to only do business with platforms that have these same morals. A majority of our fulfillment and data partners have strict data protection guidelines in place already, and we take a proactive stance on making sure the businesses that advertise with us are informed and well-educated on the latest privacy best practices.
Taking it one step further, we also vet our partners and clients to ensure compliance with all current data protection laws, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), as well as privacy laws outside of the digital datasphere, such as HIPAA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA), and any other acronym you can come up with.
Our Call to Action
Looking at all of this information holistically, our favorite superhero proverb comes to mind: “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Any Spiderman fans in the house?) As advertisers, we urge anyone in our industry to hold themselves accountable and strive for a higher level of concern for data protection. We’re optimistic that this is already happening, since a 2018 Salesforce survey reported half of global marketers sharing the sentiment that they were being more mindful of the balance between personalization and privacy than they were two years prior.
For our beloved consumers, the ones we strive to please on a daily basis, we encourage you to stay informed. Yes, sharing data can sound scary, but not every tech-based company is out to get you. Remember that sharing data also results in more relevant ad messaging for you. Perhaps the best part about today’s technology is the vast amounts of information at our fingertips. Check facts. Be educated. Stay cognizant of what you put into the ether. Change your ad preferences to help advertisers understand what you do and don’t want.
Ultimately, you as a consumer hold more power than you think, and believe it or not, there are companies like iFocus out there who are taking a proactive stance on the way consumer data is used and protected.
If you have questions or concerns about your company’s data usage and compliance, our team is here to help you navigate the tricky terrain of today’s data-driven world. Drop us a line and let’s chat.