Since Google first pioneered the use of targeted advertising in the late 1990s, the phenomenon has gone unregulated – with potentially serious consequences. Nathalie Maréchal, a senior research fellow at Ranking Digital Rights, takes a look at the history of targeted advertising and its effects on journalism, society and democracy.


Online advertising is nothing new. The strategy is simple: First, grow your user base; then, gather data about the users; next, analyze that data to define specific target groups for advertisers’ messages; and finally, rake in the cash. For a time, this strategy seemed to work for everyone: Users saw only ads they were likely to find relevant, advertisers were able to reach the people most interested in their offers and online companies made handsome profits. However, a decade after former US president Barack Obama used online advertising methods to boost his 2008 election campaign, authoritarians around the world employ the same...

About the Author

Nathalie Maréchal, PhD, is a senior research fellow at Ranking Digital Rights, where she studies the impact of information and communication technology companies’ business practices on human rights.

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