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– Google political targeting

Google’s Polical Ad. Targeting, Democracy and Randomness

Google announced on Wednesday (20/11/19) that it was no longer going to allow political candidates to target their advertisements to individuals. Instead Google will restrict the targeting to age, gender and location.

But does this go far enough? During the 1990s I worked on software for modelling user characteristics and using these to determine the content that was delivered to them. This was primarily for computer-assisted learning. The models would identify the level of knowledge a student had in a particular subject and then deliver material appropriate to that level. Some of these programs were even considered by the space industry to guide and train astronauts on the space station.

However, while there might be arguments that these systems are useful in education, it is far more questionable as to whether they contribute anything to the political process. It seems to me that in a democratic society, everybody should have access to exactly the same information and that it should not even be targeted by age, gender or even location. What are the arguments for this?

If information is targeted on the basis of my demographic characteristics, then I am leaving it to the politicians to decide what I should hear and not my own judgement about what is important to attend to. All targeting takes away my right to see what other people might be concerned about. It confines me to my own information bubble. It restricts my knowledge of what is going on in other parts of the community, and puts me at a disadvantage in being able to interact with a diversity of opinion. It compromises my autonomy.

I believe that we all have the right to not only consider our own situations but to make political decisions that relate to others. I may be well healed but still concerned for the plight of the poor, or I may be at a disadvantage in society and still concerned about how the better advantaged manage their affairs. I may be female but still have opinions about men. I may be a child but still have opinions about the way adults are dealing with climate change, for example. I may live in London and still be concerned about what is happening in the north. If information is targeted on the basis of my demographic characteristics, then I am leaving it to the politicians to decide what I should hear and not my own judgement about what is important to attend to.

As somebody once said, ‘in a world where everything is connected to everything else, it is difficult to see what matters’. Targeting restricts my view of a complicated information ecosystem and restricts me to acting locally on the basis of limited information. It takes away my capacity to see the bigger picture.

Much the same argument can be applied to the way that Parliament is currently constituted. The so-called ‘representative democracy’ is a system in which only certain people have access to the political decision-making process. These people are either self selected or selected by their parties. One way or another, they are in no way representative of the population at large. A truly representative system would select 650 MPs at random from the entire UK population. These people would then truly reflect a widely varying set of circumstances and concerns amongst the people at large. I am not necessarily saying that this is a good idea. There are many snags and it would be necessary to provide high levels of training and support (e.g. in the issues of the day and in the political process) for such a system to be effective. What I am saying is that it would be more representative and more democratic.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I tend to have faith in random processes. Would it not be fairer for all kinds of selection to be random. For example, in job selection, is it really necessary to do any vetting beyond having qualifications for the job. If having established that baseline capability, all vacancies were filled at random, then there would be far greater equality of opportunity, diversity and social mobility. It would also save a lot of time in managing the selection process and then correcting it with processes to avoid discrimination.

Selection is partly a process in which new power relations and obligations are created between those that select and those that are selected. However, somehow one doubts that the individuals that currently hold the power, would be prepared to give it up.

I tend to discount arguments that those that currently hold power are there because they deserve it. Some do, there is no doubt. But many don’t and that is divisive for the whole system. We are all aware that opportunity favours the circumstances of birth. I suppose we could argue that this itself is something of a random process, and perhaps that is why we do not question the status quo. However it is only random at a single point in time and from that point a person’s birth circumstance has an overwhelming influence.

So, I would argue against the power to target messages to anybody in particular. If there has to be any basis for selection at all (e.g. on the grounds of costs), I would argue for the random scattering of identical messages amongst the population.

A policy not to ‘fact-check’ what politicians say in their advertisements is another matter. I am not sure why the advertising standards authority principles cannot apply to politicians in the same way as it applies to the advertising of products and services. Google’s policies, are at least, going in the right direction. They say they will identify ‘clear violations’ by putting in place checks on blatantly fake news and ‘deep fakes’. They also promise transparency with respect to who is placing and seeing advertisements. Really, we might be better continuing our scrutiny of Facebook who, until very recently, have not thought it necessary to put significant controls on either targeting or the fact checking of content.

I do have some sympathy for the argument that we should not leave it to commercial companies to be making editorial decisions. Indeed, they are political decisions that need to be taken at the level of society generally. However while society and its regulatory controls are so slow to act, we are dependent on these companies to exercise controls that we hope will, in retrospect, withstand public scrutiny.

Google ad targeting policy
Facebook ad targeting policy

– Ethics of Eavesdropping

It has been recently reported (e.g. see: Bloomberg News ) that the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple employ people to listen to sample recordings made by the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Siri, respectively. They do this to improve the speech recognition capabilities of these devices.

Ethical Issues

What are the ethical issues here? The problem is not with these companies using people to assist in the training of machine-learning algorithms in order to improve the capabilities of the devices. However there are issues with the following:


  • While information like names and addresses may not accompany the speech clips being listened to, it seems quite possible that other identification would potentially enable tracing back to this information. This seems unnecessary for the purpose of training the speech recognition algorithms.

  • It has been reported that employees performing this function in some companies, have been required to sign agreements that they will not disclose what they are doing. To my mind this seems wrong. If the function is necessary and innocent then companies should be open about it.

  • These companies do not always make it clear to purchasers of devices that they may be recorded, and listened to, by people. This should be clear to users in all advertising and documentation.

  • The most contentious ethical issue is what to do if any employee of one of these companies hears a crime being committed or planned. Another situation arises if an employee overhears something that is clearly private, like bank details, or information that, although legal, could be used to blackmail. In the first situation, are these companies to be regarded as having the same status as a priest in a confessional or any other person that might hear sensitive information? A possible approach is that whatever law applies to human individuals, should also apply to the employees and the companies like Amazon, Google and Apple. So in the UK for example, some workers (such as social workers and teachers) who are likely to occasionally hear sensitive information relating to potential harm to minors, are required to report it. In the second case, companies could be legally liable for losses arising from the information being revealed or used against the user.

It seems likely that companies are reluctant to admit publicly that interactions with these devices may be listened to by people, is because it might affect sales. That’s does not seem a good enough reason.