AT&T’s dystopian advertising vision perfectly illustrates the relationship between surveillance and monopoly

AT&T has come a long way from the supernormative, feel-good messages of its You Will ads; now CEO Randall Stephenson predicts a future where his company will dynamically alter your TV ads based on what it thinks you will buy; and chase you with that ad from your TV to your computer to your phone, and then spy on your location to see whether you go to a retailer to buy the thing you’ve had advertised to you; and use that intelligence to command high advertising rates from advertisers.


On The Verge, Nilay Patel points out that this requires an enormous, vertically integrated scaffolding of surveillance, made possible by the company’s ownership of the video services you watch, the device data showing what you’re watching from moment to moment, location tracking from your devices, data from ad-partners tracking your purchases, all in realtime, available to a huge number of ad-sales associates who will use it in their pitches to advertisers.

One important element of this mix is how much it relies on Reagan’s radical rewrite of antitrust laws, which allow for companies to grow by merging with rivals (as AT&T grew by reabsorbing the “Baby Bells” it was forced to spin out in the 1982 antitrust breakup), and acquiring nascent competitors (as AT&T has done with dozens of small tech companies that might have challenged it someday), and to acquire vertically integrated monopolies (as AT&T has done in acquiring Time-Warner and other media companies, each of which had grown by violating pre-Reagan antitrust).

AT&T’s surveillance business model is only viable because it can practice antitrust violations with impunity, in other words.

What’s more, AT&T is still not planning to deliver high-efficacy ads. With all this shenanigans, it’s still going to sell cars to much, much less than 1% of the people it shows ads to.

This is an important detail in the practice of what Shoshana Zuboff has dubbed “Surveillance Capitalism.” In Zuboff’s conception, antitrust concerns are really a sideshow, because machine learning is so powerful at shaping human outcomes that even if monopolies were ended, our ability to make free choices would still be fatally compromised.

But the AT&T example shows that the efficacy of machine-learning persuasion is still pretty dismal, and the whole thing is only viable because of anticompetitive tactics. Even if you believe that AT&T will someday be able to knit together your viewing habits, browsing habits, location data, and purchase history to create a devastatingly effective mind-control ray that deprives you of your free will, you could still prevent that from coming to pass by refusing to allow AT&T to violate the traditional antitrust rules.

So, yeah. This is a terrifying vision of permanent surveillance.

In order to make this work, AT&T would have to:

* Own the video services you’re watching so it can dynamically place targeted ads in your streams

* Collect and maintain a dataset of your personal information and interests so it can determine when it should target this car ad to you

* Know when you’re watching something so it can actually target the ads

* Track your location using your phone and combine it with the ad-targeting data to see if you visit a dealership after you see the ads

* Collect even more data about you from the dealership to determine if you took a test-drive

* Do all of this tracking and data collection repeatedly and simultaneously for every ad you see

* Aggregate all of that data in some way for salespeople to show clients and justify a 4x premium over other kinds of advertising, including the already scary-targeted ads from Google and Facebook.

The future of AT&T is an ad-tracking nightmare hellworld [Nilay Patel/The Verge]

(via /.)

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