Three years ago, Walmart distributed a paper ad circular with the subheading “Low Income.” Among the products advertised in that category were a 10-pack of Kool-Aid Jammers drinks, a 9.5-ounce bag of Cheetos and a two-liter bottle of Coke. As Mother Jones reported, this stood in stark contrast to the broader “Grocery” page, which touted “yellow onions, whole carrots, and Bartlett pears.” Further, it contradicted the company’s promises two years prior to offer more fruits, vegetables, lean meats and dairy as part of its “Great For You” food subdivision; only three of the 36 items in the ad met these criteria.
While this form of class-compartmentalized marketing is overt, its digital counterpart is more insidious. By harvesting and selling vast swaths of individual data to third parties, internet service providers (ISPs) push products and services that threaten the health, finances and quality of life of the poor, effectively corroding privacy while perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
A study by the Center for Digital Democracy published in March found that internet service providers, including Comcast, Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable and Verizon reap income, education level and purchase behavior data points to sell to the likes of financial marketers, fast food companies and health care businesses. Advertisers may buy financial data, for example, to market high-interest credit card or loan offers to consumers in debt. The report also asserted that, in conjunction with its data partners, Verizon offers advertisers “targeting packages” directed toward low-income communities that specifically push gambling, cigarette smoking and soda consumption. (None of the above telecommunications companies responded to requests for comment.)
“We’ve sat in focus groups where we’ve heard folks in Atlanta and Chicago relay horrific stories of the different ways in which their children are exposed to predatory junk food advertising in ways they don’t feel like they have a whole lot of control over,” said Brandi Collins, the media justice director at the racial justice nonprofit Color of Change. “They’re driving through … a food desert, and instantly, they’re getting bombarded with ads for Coca-Cola or these unhealthy products, and their children are getting hit from every angle, on YouTube and other spaces.”
In addition to targeting people with low incomes (a practice that already disproportionately affects communities of color, since an estimated 27 percent of Latino children and 33 percent of Black children in the US are living in poverty), Verizon also offers packages that target Black and Latino markets via Facebook ads and Spanish-language pre-rolls (commercials that precede online videos).
“Basic things like what jobs people are exposed to or what sort of housing ads they’re exposed to can be limited based on their race or ethnicity,” Collins said. “What that [also] looks like is whether or not people receive advertising for legitimate education services, or for Trump University.”
A number of factors allow ISPs to amass such colossal, granular collections of data, but perhaps the greatest is their expansion into monopoly. Mergers run rampant in the telecommunications industry: Comcast now owns NBCUniversal; Charter Communications acquired Time Warner, rechristening it “Spectrum;” AT&T absorbed DirecTV last year and, in October, proposed a deal to buy Time Warner. As these corporate forces mushroom, they gain access to more advanced and varied forms of hardware and software, acquiring cross-device tracking capabilities that border on omniscience. Meanwhile, they lay claim to different regions of the country, assiduously nixing any overlap.
Internet service providers “have this 1950s mafia-style kind of setup going on. You have the different crime families saying, ‘I’ve got New York, I’ve got New Jersey, someone else has got Florida,'” said Steven Renderos, organizing director at the Center for Media Justice.
As a result, the options for many Black, Latino and low-income communities are paltry. Often, ISPs elect to equip affluent neighborhoods with service and upgrades first, then neglect to extend that infrastructure to poor urban or rural areas. (AT&T is a prime offender; it forced qualified low-cost broadband recipients to pay full price when their neighborhoods couldn’t reach the threshold speed of 3 megabits per second.) This occurs for two reasons: ISPs fear that lower-income regions are less likely to sustain a return on investment, and with a dearth of competition, there’s little need to provide an option that’s either affordable or of high quality. For vulnerable populations, what ensues is a second-class internet marked by slow speeds and priced at the discretion of a profit-driven provider.
“That’s problematic when you think about how much of our information, how much of our everyday life, is being transitioned online — education, applying for a job, health care,” Renderos said. “To deny low-income communities, rural communities and communities of color … access to high-quality internet is denying their ability to benefit in the 21st-century society that we’re building.”
The last two years have witnessed some progress. Thanks to the work of civil and consumer rights groups, Google has imposed a partial cessation of predatory payday loan ads, while AT&T has axed its “pay-for-privacy” scheme, in which users could subscribe to a more expensive internet service in exchange for limited data tracking. Of paramount importance are recent decisions from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC): though it has approved the aforementioned mergers, the commission ruled in favor of net neutrality; this year, it incorporated broadband into its low-income Lifeline program and mandated user consent for ISP tracking of “sensitive” data, such as health and financial information, texts and emails, location and browser history. (This may set a precedent for edge providers like Facebook, whose race-exclusionary advertising platform recently rankled the public conscious.)
The relatively democratic FCC of recent years, however, faces ruin in the looming Trump administration; the president-elect contends he’ll raze net neutrality and its associated privacy regulations. Whether this is true, users — especially those who are most marginalized — will need far more than occasional moves of corporate goodwill and “opt-in” tracking consent frameworks to see an open internet that doesn’t commoditize and exploit them. For now, it’s up to concerned citizens to ensure the fight for such an internet continues.