If — or when — a backlash comes, it would upend the business models of a wide swath of travel industry companies. It would also put many businesses specializing in surveillance of consumers at risk.
Momentum is building for what could become one of the biggest disruptions to the way that the travel industry — and other businesses across the corporate spectrum — market and advertise their products and services.
That is to say that what some call the surveillance economy, or surveillance capitalism, meaning the penchant for corporations to track internet users across the Web, in their homes, and on their commutes in order to retarget them and monetize the data with unrelenting advertising, could be taken down a peg.
The rumblings are everywhere, although the endgame is far from assured.
Consider that in the last few days, Roger McNamee, co-founder of Elevation Partners, former mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, and the author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, appeared on CNN and called for overturning the practices and business models of companies as far ranging as Facebook/Instagram, Google/YouTube and Snap, among others.
Likening these companies to chemical corporations that were forced to pay for the cleanup of the environmental catastrophes they created, McNamee argued that the big platform companies need to pay for the damages they do to users from disseminating political misinformation to trampling on privacy rights.
Arguing that these problems are “going to get a lot worse” and that surveillance of consumers will increase because of the emergence of gadgets such as smart speakers, McNamee said, “I don’t think the problem here is the product per se. It is the business model.”
A few days earlier, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote a New York Times opinion piece calling for the breakup of Facebook, and noting that Zuckerberg wields unchecked power through majority control of the company, including the Facebook platform itself and its Instagram and WhatsApp products.
Privacy Violations, Security Breaches
Facebook has been guilty of myriad privacy and security lapses, which is a very kind way to put it, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has been widely reported to be poised to slap the company with a $5 billion fine.
“Facebook’s business model is built on capturing as much of our attention as possible to encourage people to create and share more information about who they are and who they want to be,” Hughes wrote. “We pay for Facebook with our data and our attention, and by either measure it doesn’t come cheap.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nod, has called for breaking up Big Tech, including severing Instagram and WhatsApp from Facebook, taking Waze away from Google, and reversing Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods.
For what it’s worth in terms of actually following through on the threat, the Trump administration has been making noise about probing Google, Amazon, and Facebook for potential antitrust violations.
Data Mining: Par for the Course
Personalization and retargeting have become a mainstay of the technology industry and a holy grail in the evolution of the travel industry. We may like it when Uber knows our regular commute so we don’t have to repeatedly input the destination and when HotelTonight tries to curate the sort of property that we might prefer, but a segment — at least — of consumers may be getting aggrieved at travel companies seeking to monetize Big Data and retargeting users with an endless stream of advertisements across the Web.
How many people have dropped out of Facebook or unplugged Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant devices because they are tired of the eavesdropping?
Google routinely mines people’s Gmail accounts and probably knows more about travelers’ past itineraries than average road warriors can remember themselves.
Surveillance techniques can sometimes appear innocuous, but NBC News found, for example, that millions of people uploaded photos for photo storage app Ever, but the company turned around and used the images to hone its facial recognition technology and sought to sell the data to third-party companies.
While the push for personalization may be originating in the advertising departments of companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, a bevy of companies ranging from Sojern to Intent Media facilitate personalization and retargeting for the travel industry. And there’s much debate on where consumer sentiment really lies.
Daniel Craig, a former vice president of ReviewPro and the founder of hospitality strategy company Reknown, opined on Twitter “that the push toward personalization is coming more from tech vendors than travelers.”
It’s interesting that the push toward personalization is coming more from tech vendors than travelers
— Daniel E. Craig (@dcraig) May 11, 2019
Marketing consultant Stuart Falk argued that any potential backlash against the advertising business model could push companies to rework their advertising budgets and tilt them toward branding campaigns instead.
This could result in a larger allocation of adv budgets to branding campaign reaching a broad demographic profile vs narrowly targeted direct response.
— Stuart Falk (@stufalk) May 11, 2019
Several companies debated the personalization issue last week in Cancun at the HotelBeds MarketHub 2019 conference when I raised the question during a panel discussion of what would happen if a backlash against personalization and the accompanying advertising uber-monetization push takes place.
Paul Anthony, transformation and innovation director at HotelBeds, said hotels seeking to hone their personalization efforts should provide the wholesaler with more data. Anthony believes many travelers welcome personalization.
Personalization at What Price?
“As much as a lot of us don’t like thinking about something snooping on us, when it is very contextual about something we are looking for we don’t quite understand how it happens, but we love it,” Anthony said.
He conceded, though, that some millennials will object to such personalization. “But for a lot of us, actually time is money for us. We are busy people. I think we will want to have that personal service because when it works it’s amazing.”
Anthony acknowledged that although some governments may take a critical look at personalization, “I think people will push it through.”
Jesse Mickle, senior vice president of partner and supplier relations at Getaroom, noted that governments may provide resistance to companies that have become near-monopolies.
But Mickle said he believes travelers will welcome the convenience of not having to stand in long lines and being forced to reenter certain information repeatedly.
“I think those needs and demands and desires are going to outweigh some of those regulatory concerns,” Mickle said.
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Photo credit: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder and chief executive during a Facebook press event in Menlo Park, California, in this file photo taken April 4, 2013. There are increasing calls to break up Facebook and other big platforms. Robert Galbraith / Reuters