Having a child is a deeply personal experience. The internet aggressively turns it into anything but.
The internet hates secrets. More than that, it despises them. And so, in February of last year, my partner and I resolved to try and keep the existence of our unborn child a secret from the online economy’s data-hungry gaze. Our reasons were simple: first, we wanted our child, when it was good and ready, to establish its own online identity; second, we didn’t want to be stalked around the internet by adverts for breast pumps and baby carriers; finally, and most pertinently, we wanted some semblance of control over something that felt deeply personal.
On the first point, we’re doing pretty well. On the second, we failed spectacularly. And on our foolhardy wish for control? Well, it goes without saying, the internet doesn’t want you to have control. (And yes, I realise the irony of me writing an article about a child I am trying to keep a secret from the internet.)
For my partner and I, this was irritating. For others, it’s downright upsetting. A little over a decade ago, US retailer Target started posting discount coupons to customers it suspected might be in the early stages of pregnancy based on their shopping habits. The problem? One of those customers was a teenager who had yet to tell her parents of the impending new arrival. Cue one very angry father.
It’s an example of data misuse that’s gone down in infamy. But it’s not an isolated incident. In December 2018, Gillian Brockell, a video editor at The Washington Post, wrote an open letter to technology companies imploring them to stop showing her adverts for maternity wear and baby products. Brockell had lost her baby due to stillbirth, yet the algorithms that were smart enough to spot she was pregnant weren’t designed to recognise when something had gone wrong. As Brockell points out, nobody has ever asked for pregnancy and parenting ads to be turned on, yet we’re given so little control over turning them off. Once captured and stored by data brokers, the most personal details about our lives are sold with impunity and stalk you to every corner of the internet and beyond.
This lack of control, when you pause to think about it, is alarming. Short of throwing off the shackles of modern life and taking up a nomadic existence on the Great Steppe, keeping anything secret from the internet – or exercising any real control over how your personal data is used and abused – is nigh on impossible. For Brockell and the thousands of other people dealing with the loss of a child, that lack of control is hugely upsetting. For others, attempting to exert control over what happens to your data reveals the impossibility of our privacy predicament.
Opting out of tracking and targeting, it turns out, isn’t an option. There is no such thing as a purely transactional transaction. Every purchase I make and every website I visit is recorded, tracked and indelibly tagged to scores of profiles sold by data brokers I’ve never heard of to companies I’ve never heard of in an attempt to persuade me to spend £150 on a Chicco Next 2 Me Bedside Crib. Spoiler: I did.
None of this should come as a surprise, but being unable to keep a specific and emotionally charged life event away from online advertisers and data brokers is gut-wrenching. You have options, of course. Ditch Google for DuckDuckGo. Swap Chrome for Tor. Trade in your Android for an iPhone or an outdated feature phone. Make all purchases in physical stores using cash. Don’t send or receive a single email mentioning that you are expecting a child. Police the social media use of anyone who knows about the pregnancy and might inadvertently post about it.
It quickly becomes apparent that the cost of keeping a secret from the internet is too high. Having a baby, it turns out, is stressful. Midnight panics about when we last felt the baby kick? Let me just open up Tor so we can read through advice pages on the NHS website. Signing up for classes about the trauma of childbirth? Hold on a second while I setup a new email account on a private server so Google doesn’t scan my inbox for keywords. Excited family members sending you questions on Facebook Messenger? Ask them to immediately delete all those messages and download Signal instead.
Completely relearning how to use the internet is one thing, but becoming a social pariah is something else entirely. And then, when the baby is born, a new problem arises. How on Earth can you stop anyone who takes a photo of your child from storing that image on Google Photos, thus opening it up to Google’s machine learning algorithms? That’s my child. Why should Google be allowed to sink its algorithmic claws into his beautiful face and use that data to better personalise its products and services?
Ultimately, there’s only so much you can do. The internet wants to know everything about you and you can be damned sure it will find a way. In 2014, expectant mother Janet Vertesi, a sociologist at Princeton, was equally dismayed by the fallacy of online privacy. Her attempt to keep her pregnancy away from the dragnet of online advertisers was rather more successful, but it ended in failure when she realised her behaviour had likely aroused suspicions of criminal activity. Buying everything online using gift cards, it turns out, makes you look a lot like a crook.
You might think, ‘Who cares? That’s just how the internet works’. But the second you try to keep a secret from the internet, to keep something deeply personal to yourself and not have it tagged and tracked and monetised, you feel utterly helpless.
And once it knows, you’d really rather it didn’t. Writing on WIRED.com, Collier Meyerson highlights the obscene reality-bending that dominates pregnancy-related adverts – and #hashtag #filled influencer posts – on Instagram. Through the eyes of Instagram’s algorithm, pregnancy, childbirth and caring for a newborn were a beautiful, almost mystical experience bathed in warm, glowing light. Or not. “I longed to be one of these Instagram moms,” Meyerson writes. “A woman unphased by the unpleasantries of new motherhood: the incessant dripping milk, the stretch marks, the uncertainty about how to navigate parenthood.”
Having a child is a deeply personal experience. The internet aggressively turns it into anything but. This was our child. But for search engines, social networks and data brokers it was an opportunity to aggressively target us. Don’t want that? Tough. Your unborn child has no clue what the internet is, but like each and every one of us, it is also the product.