November 27, 2020

How Most Of The Anti-Internet Crew Misread The News That The NY Times Is Getting Rid Of 3rd Party Advertisers

By Mike Masnick

One of the most frustrating aspects of discussing the internet, business models, and privacy is how many otherwise intelligent people continue to insist that Google and Facebook are “selling your data.” It’s a concept that is widely considered accurate, but has never been true. It’s so ridiculous that it leads to silly Congressional exchanges between elected officials who are sure the tech companies are selling data, and the people from those companies themselves. Doing targeted advertising is not selling data. There are many, many things you can reasonably and accurately complain about regarding big internet companies and their use of data, but “selling” the data is not one of them.

As a refresher: the way targeted advertising works is that an advertiser agrees to place an ad and uses whatever system to target those ads to particular groupings of people, as set up by the ad platform. So, if you want to advertise to grumpy bloggers in their mid-40s, you can find a way to have those ads show to that demographic. But the advertiser doesn’t get any data from the platform about anyone. The companies are selling access to highly targeted demographics, but it’s never been selling data.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other companies that do sell private data. There are. Lots of them. Data brokers, telcos, some ISPs, and even your local DMV have been caught selling your actual data. But for some reason, everyone wants to keep insisting that Google and Facebook also sell data, when they never have, and have always only sold targeted advertising in which the data only goes in one direction, and not back to the advertiser.

Now, that’s all background to the very interesting news that the NY Times is now moving away from using 3rd party advertising services.

The New York Times will no longer use 3rd-party data to target ads come 2021, executives tell Axios, and it is building out a proprietary first-party data platform.

However, it is building out its own targeting platform:

Beginning in July, The Times will begin to offer clients 45 new proprietary first-party audience segments to target ads.

  • Those segments are broken up into 6 categories: age (age ranges, generation), income (HHI, investable assets, etc.), business (level, industry, retirement, etc.), demo (gender, education, marital status, etc.) and interest (fashion, etc.)
  • By the second half of the year, The Times plans to introduce at least 30 more interest segments.

Now, if you understand the ad market, what’s happening here is that the NY Times is building its own version of what Facebook and Google do. This is probably smart for them, because it makes them less reliant on various partners. And, one of the reasons the NY Times is able to do that is because it’s such a large player in the space:

“This can only work because we have 6 million subscribers and millions more registered users that we can identify and because we have a breadth of content,” says Allison Murphy, Senior Vice President of Ad Innovation.

But what was odd is that the usual crew of people who regularly like to slam Facebook and Google… seemed to celebrate this move as if it was somehow antagonistic to Facebook and Google’s practices, and “more privacy protective.”

Yet, again, the NY Times is now doing the same thing that Facebook and Google have done. It’s collecting data on its users, and then using that data to sell access to advertisers. Why is that evil “selling data” when it comes to those other companies by “good” when it’s the NY Times? Look at the segmenting the NY Times already says it’s doing: how exactly is it getting “marital status”? Or income levels? Is that the sort of info you give up to get a NY Times subscription (and if so, who is actually giving that info away?) or is the NY Times collecting that information through other means?

Now, there are some reasonable arguments to be made that in making this move the NY Times will be sending less data back to 3rd party advertisers, but even that is only narrowly true. First of all, the data that flows back to ad networks via publishing partners is already a lot less significant than you might think. It’s just not that much — and unless the NY Times is also going to pull other things like the URL tracking it includes in its “share on Facebook” links, it’s still going to be sending data back to companies like Facebook.

None of this is to say what the NY Times is doing is bad. I think it is a good thing, but it’s more a statement on the terrible state of ad networks today than it is on any big “privacy” effort. Frankly, we’ve been discussing ditching 3rd party ads entirely ourselves over the last few months, but unlike the NY Times, we can’t then set up our own “targeting” operation (nor would we want to), and tragically, very few advertisers are left who will sponsor sites directly based on topic, and without targeting (trust us, we’ve tried for years to find them).

But it is quite silly for the people who have been hating on Facebook to now cheer on the NY Times doing the same thing that Facebook has done as if it’s somehow different.