Critical discussions about tracking, targeted advertising, surveillance capitalism seem to easily stray onto the terrain of paranoia and speculation. Cookies are associated with an inchoate but rather mild evil and almost no-one can explain how they produce their odious effects.
Cookies, however, are only the first hurdle in understanding the much more opaque universe of AdTech. This is a poorly understood world in part because it is rather new and has yet to assume a stable shape. The industry is dominated by companies which are far from being household names, and they describe themselves in terms of roles which are not easily grasped – demand side platforms, data management platforms, ad exchanges etc. The jargon accompanying the recreation of the advertising pipeline for real-time delivery is just the surface manifestation of a complex technical system. Little wonder then that most people in the advertising industry itself don’t get it, never mind us mortals (aka ‘targets’ and ‘waste’) who are being bought and sold billions of times a day.
The trade press is a great source of information, as are company blogs, and even the mainstream media occasionally does something decent, but mostly it’s fragmented. Of course there’s a copious academic literature, mostly coming out of computer science, if you want to get into the detail. But for an overview one could do a lot worse that a to look at a report produced by the Norwegian Data Protection Authority last December, titled “The Great Data Race” (mercifully in English). The first half of the report (particularly pages 10-29) provide a good breakdown of the new division of labour, examine how data is collected and breakdown the actual process of ‘programmatic buying’ and real-time bidding.
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