The category for this award is a new one.
It is called: “What makes me really angry!”
And this year’s award goes to … – yes, to whom exactly?
It wasn’t that simple this time round. As you will see.
So: What makes me really angry:
Cookie banners! They’re such a pest! You know this: you enter a website and – bam! – immediately this box pops up, terribly designed and covering what you actually wanted to see. And now you need to decide: Do you just want to get to this web page quickly, then just click the large coloured “Okay” button. But if you take this “your rights” thing seriously, it gets complicated. Eyes squinted, you read the small-print, grey on white, and spend minutes clicking away everything that you don’t want. And that is quite a lot: The German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung uses up to 470 trackers. “I don’t want any of this!” is not even an option. And if you do the arduous work of manually deselecting each and every tracker, be very careful because the next friendly and colourful button says “Accept All” and not “Save Selection”. That button is grey. But careful again – you shouldn’t even click on that one. Because first you need to find the well-hidden category called “Legitimate Interest”. In there, everything is set to active still, and again you need to deactivate everything. Did you know that?
What makes me really angry about that:
These cookie dialogs are designed in accordance with the latest findings on human perception, psychology and web design for ergonomically appealing web pages. Therefore:
Important choices are hidden in the text flow, while the “Okay” option is displayed as a big button.
These choices are written in illegible colours and font sizes.
The “Accept All” button is at the bottom right – where we would normally expect to find the button to confirm our choices.
Often the left–right alignment of options is swapped: If I click where I previously clicked to deactivate trackers, there now is a central switch that will activate everything again.
And then there are linguistic monsters, complex wordings and multiple negations, to maximise our confusion.
This kind of trickery in design is called “Dark Patterns”. They could also rightly be called “deceit”, “unethical”, or “manipulation by design”.
If we are in a good mood – and not in a hurry – we could regard it all as an absurd game. A dark pattern adventure: Will I make it through the maze and decline all the trackers? What are they going to try next in order to trick me? And once I got through to the other side: Can anyone remind me which article I wanted to read? Oh, never mind …
Cookie banners are not a game. They are miserable and mean. They steal my lifetime. This is design made to tire me out and wear me down. The intention is to make me give up and eventually click “Okay”.
Everybody please note once and for all: It is not data protection that is to blame! No, these unnerving queries are by no means mandated by law – on the contrary, a large part of these cookie banners are outright illegal. In May 2021, the privacy organisation noyb.eu1 that Max Schrems2 initiated sent more than 500 complaints to companies using illegal cookie banners on their websites. There could be a lot more. Thank you for that! Also, thanks to the members of the European parliament who started the initiative “trackingfreeads.eu”3 against tracking-based advertising.
And cookie banners are only the most visible materialisation of the ways we are spied upon on the Internet.
Next to cookies, there are various other spying methods. There is the Facebook pixel, for example, which is included invisibly on many media websites4 and betrays our clicking behaviour to Facebook. There is the browser fingerprint, which uses information such as the operating system we use, browser type, plugins and installed fonts in order to re‑identify us without the need for any cookies at all.
What makes me really angry:
Do you know what goes on in the background the moment you “enter” a website? While the first parts of the page are loading, your personal profile is being offered on the online advertising market. An auction for your attention begins. You are the commodity. This is called “Real-time Bidding”; it happens in milliseconds. Various groups of online advertising providers identify and analyse and classify you, using your online profile, which is kept by even different companies. Say you are male, in your mid-40s, and you have a taste for expensive watches? Whoosh, and your news website is showing you ads for BMW cars. Or the student who has just looked for a flatshare online is now being baited with supposedly convenient credit offers.
A whole ecosystem of advertising companies is wagering in “Real-time Bidding”, trying to be the one to show you their adverts. A giant network of service providers and other beneficiaries. And those who actually make the web interesting, all those publishers, blogs, content providers, are the ones getting the smallest piece of the cake.
What also makes me really angry …
… are the people that shout: But this is how all that content can be made available for free! Free? Well – snooping and manipulation is quite a high price for this “free” content, I believe. Then there is the claim that the media producing this interesting content could not exist without personalised advertising. And that we should just understand that and accept tracking and personalised ads.
That is nonsense. Media companies have been selling advertising space for a long time. However, until the 1990s they were actually able to keep the largest share of the takings for themselves, and from that they could pay their journalists, photographers, cartoonists, researchers etc. a proper wage. Since the 2000s, media revenue is in free-fall. Because meanwhile 50–70% (!) of the money spent by advertising customers does not reach the publishers any more, it is taken by the service providers and advertising platforms that have got in the way.5
And where does all that money that does not reach the media end up? Have a look at this chart6.
By now, the main share goes to Google, and to Facebook. To summarise: personalised advertising means that users are snooped upon – and media companies are starved out.7
What really makes me angry:
Google now presents itself as a white knight by announcing: Chrome, Google’s own browser, will block third-party cookies from 2022. Big cheers from the Internet and the media: Google will rescue us from the cookie banners!
But blocking third-party cookies in no way means that this will stop tracking and spying on the net. No, Google simply wants to introduce a new technology for that: “FLoC” – Federated Learning of Cohorts. FLoC means: according to our browsing behaviour of the current week, we are put into a group, or cohort, of 1,000–5,000 people who have visited similar websites. Chrome stores the information on cohort membership on the local computer.
If now you believe that you can vanish in this group of one thousand, you are mistaken. If a person logs into an account on a website, for example, of course they are no longer anonymous. Their personal details can then be connected with the current FLoC cohort. The same applies to those who have a Google or Facebook account and stay logged in all the time for convenience – they can be identified, too. And we can also be recognised by our browser fingerprint. So Floc is going to make sure that we are analysed even more precisely than we are already. And the Chrome browser these days has a global market share of about 70%.
FLoC is not a privacy-friendly technology. It will not end tracking on the net in any way – quite the contrary8. But who could seriously expect this from Google anyway – a company that makes 99% of its revenue from advertising. It would be more believable if piranhas were to announce that they were going vegan.
There is a side effect to FLoC and blocked third-party cookies that is welcome to Google: They are ousting competitors in the advertising market. Well, it’s not like we are going to miss these other providers terribly much. But this means that the concentration in this market is escalating again. Google is number one already, then comes Facebook and recently Amazon. And then, for quite a distance, no one. “Competition is for losers.”9 Free market? Ah, come on. What a Big Tech corporation wants is a monopoly.
What makes me really angry:
How these corporations treat every one of us. How they regard people as a resource, which they can exploit and whose personal experience they can own. The disdain for the people, the ruthlessness and the intention to deceive. The scorn for paying taxes and for state infrastructure. And the contempt for legal regulation. Shoshana Zuboff has found a word for that: “surveillance capitalism”10.
There is not just one single data leech – there is a whole leeching ecosystem. This includes insurances that want to exclude every possible risk to themselves, the scoring companies that secretly rate us all, determining our opportunities in real life, the lobbyists, the think tanks, the PR agencies, the law firms that make this dispossession possible, and the secret services that profit from it all and like to fish in murky waters themselves.
So who is now going to receive this BigBrotherAward?
The cookie bakeries? The online advertising industry? The big platform monopolists? The psychological nudging experts and dark pattern designers? The people that steal our time and get on our nerves? The profile peddlers and real time bidding casino operators? The smart ones, the unscrupulous ones and the hangers-on in the media? The career guys and the naïve ones among digital policy makers?11
It was a tough choice. But then something happened.
Something that really amused me.
Because Google basically nominated themselves.
We don’t know if it was human error, the heroic deed of a whistleblower or an AI that had been sampling a digital truth serum …
The story goes like this: Ten U.S. states led by Texas filed a lawsuit against Google in 2020. They complained that Google was using its market power to fix prices for online advertising, forming a monopoly and manipulating auctions for advertising space. Google was claimed to be abusing, without restraint, its double role as advertising platform provider and as a provider of ads itself as well as its access to user data. Ken Paxton, the Attorney General of Texas, explained the issue with a baseball image: Google is acting as the pitcher, catcher, batter and umpire, all at the same time.12
So Google filed documents at the U.S. district court in Texas, intending to prove their innocence. The filed documents were excessively relevant to the case – but not in the way Google intended. Because these documents had not been redacted, so the really interesting passages had not been blacked out.
A few hours later Google noticed its mistake and asked to refile its documents. But it was too late – some court reporters at the legal portal MLex13 had read the unredacted versions and quickly realised the treasure that had fallen into their laps:
These documents described that since 2013, Google as an auctioning platform has been using its knowledge of previous auctions to predict which offers would be just high enough. This enabled them in their other role as an ad provider to win advertising auctions at a minimal price.14 This is what stock markets call insider trading. It had been suspected for a long time – but now here was the proof in Google’s own documents.
With this trick, Google does not only gain an advantage over its competitors, they also push down the prices that publishers can achieve for their advertising space. Users are snooped upon – and media companies are starved out.
What makes me really angry:
Google has internally named this process “Project Bernanke” – after Ben Bernanke, the former chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve. This code name signifies nothing else but “Google’s licence to print money”. The sheer arrogance.
But there is more: In 2018, Google struck a secret deal with Facebook, number 2 in the advertising market. The internal code name is “Jedi Blue”. In this deal Google assures Facebook, its competitor, that Facebook are going to win 10% of the auctions that they participate in on Google’s platform. How could that be assured in a market with supposedly free competition?
This is how: Google delivers information to Facebook about Internet users, which Facebook can use to uniquely identify 60% of desktop users and 80% of mobile users. This way Facebook knows for which users it will be worth to invest for their ads. Facebook assures in return that they will invest a certain amount in advertising and that they will stop pursuing a rival technology called “Header Bidding”, which would have given other advertising networks next to Google a better chance. If that is not anti-competitive behaviour, then what is?
But: you were caught!
What makes me hopeful:
The lawsuits and sanctions against Big Tech due to privacy and competition law violations are increasing, both in individual countries (such as in France just now) as well as in the EU and the United States. Yay – enforce the law!15
California – yes, that is the U.S. state of the Silicon Valley – has enacted a data protection law. The European GDPR was the blueprint – but the Californian law is actually stricter!16
The New York Times decided in 2018 (after the GDPR came into force) to forego trackers and personalised advertising for their international edition, selecting their ads on context again. In addition to better privacy, this is also a financial success: Now that the tracking services are kept out, more ad revenue remains with the paper.17
The British daily The Guardian finished its 2019 financial year with a healthy profit after several difficult years – without any paywall, funded solely by readers’ donations.18
The EU is preparing two regulations that will intervene in the Internet giants’ business: The Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA). Lobbyists and Big Tech law firms are up in arms.19
What should give us extra momentum: A bipartisan movement is actually starting in the U.S. aimed at curtailing the might of large digital corporations. We are looking forward to Lina Khan20, who was nominated for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC, the agency for enforcing antitrust law and promoting consumer protection) – she is a competent critic of Big Tech.21
And: Google receives the BigBrotherAward 2021 for recently exposed large-scale manipulations of the Internet advertising market, for starving creators and the media, and for dispossessing our digital personalities.
Maybe this is the beginning of something that will make Google really angry.
Heartfelt congratulations, Google.
2 Max Schrems was on stage at the German BigBrotherAwards in 2015, reading chapter and verse to out Interior Ministers because they – while professing the opposite – tried to undermine European data protection law. Here is the English translation of his award speech.
8 The EFF summarises it thus: “FLoC is the opposite of privacy-preserving technology. Today, trackers follow you around the web, skulking in the digital shadows in order to guess at what kind of person you might be. In Google’s future, they will sit back, relax, and let your browser do the work for them.” Source: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/08/dont-play-googles-privacy-sandbox-1 (Web-Archive-Link)
9 A quote from Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and Palantir, investor at Facebook.
11 Or maybe the advertising experts, market researchers, business consultants, insurance agents and telephone sanitisers – who, as we learned from Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, were evacuated from the planet of Golgafrincham and eventually landed on earth?
13 MLex, 7 Apr 2021: Google acknowledges it foresaw possibility of probe of 'Jedi Blue' advertising deal with Facebook by Michael Acton, Mike Swift (Web-Archive-Link)
14 Businessinsider, 21 Apr 2021: The 5 most revelatory findings about Texas' antitrust fight against Google, including the secret 'Project Bernanke' and its 'Jedi Blue' deal with Facebook (Web-Archive-Link)
15 Federal Cartel Office (Germany) reporting on the case against Google, 25 May 2021 (Web-Archive-Link)
Tagesschau.de, 7 June 2021, Millionenstrafe für Google in Frankreich
wsj.com, 29.5.2019: Behavioral Ad Targeting Not Paying Off for Publishers, Study Suggests (Web-Archive-Link)
Tagesschau.de, 9 Dec 2020: US-Staaten verklagen Facebook (Web-Archive-Link)
20 Lobbycontrol, 15 Dec 2020: DSA/DMA – wie Big Tech neue Regeln für digitale Plattformen verhindern will (Web-Archive-Link)
21 Sueddeutsche.de, 15 Mar 2021: Juristisches Wunderkind (Web-Archive-Link)
Manager Magazin, 11 Mar 2021: Die Jägerin der digitalen Monopole bekommt Macht in Washington (Web-Archive-Link)
Shoshana Zuboff: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The Fight for a Human Future at the new Frontier of Power. 2019.
Evgeny Morozov: To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. 2013.
Topic: „Dark Patterns“
Topic: Google’s FLoC – Federated Learning of Cohorts
Topic: Tracker, Facebook Pixel, Super Cookies, Browser Fingerprint
Topic: personal advertising
Survey on personalised ads:
Globalwitness.org: Do people really want personalised ads online? (Web-Archive-Link)
Topic: anti-competitive behaviour – Google’s “Project Bernanke” and “Jedi Blue”
MLex, 7.42021: Google acknowledges it foresaw possibility of probe of 'Jedi Blue' advertising deal with Facebook (Web-Archive-Link)
By Michael Acton, Mike Swift
MLex, 9.4.2021: Google's description of 'Jedi Blue' clarifies states' US antitrust complaint (Web-Archive-Link)
By Mike Swift, Michael Acton
Wall Street Journal, 11.4.2021: Google’s Secret ‘Project Bernanke’ Revealed in Texas Antitrust Case. Program used past bid data to boost tech company’s win rate in advertising auctions, according to court filing (Web-Archive-Link)
Jeff Horwitz and Keach Hagey
welt.de, 24 Apr 2021: Das „Projekt Bernanke“ entlarvt Googles wahre Macht. By Benedikt Fuest (Web-Archive-Link)