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The Internet is a much different place if you are rich

Published Mar 6th, 2013 12:25PM EST
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The Internet is widely regarded as a highway of free information that doesn’t discriminate against color, sexuality or religious beliefs. This is a common misconception, however. Although most people aren’t aware of it, today’s Internet is tailored to your specific needs. Companies like Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB) and others gather detailed information about users and then sell it to advertisers. A company must then decide who to target with its ads. For example, a company like Gucci wouldn’t bother paying to advertise its products to someone who makes an income below a certain threshold, knowing he or she would be less likely to make a purchase. As noted by Michael Fertik of Scientific American, the rich see a very different Internet compared to the rest of us.

“99 percent of us live on the wrong side of a one-way mirror, in which the other 1 percent manipulates our experiences,” he said. “Some laud this trend as ‘personalization’ — which sounds innocuous and fun, evoking the notion that the ads we see might appear in our favorite color schemes. What we are talking about, however, is much deeper and significantly more consequential.”

Fertik explained that for the past decade, online retailers have altered prices based on Web habits such as buying history and personal information such as income and location. This is, unfortunately, only the beginning. Google received a patent last September for a technology that lets companies dynamically price electronic content, allowing them to alter prices for different customers based on past experiences.

The legality of this is somewhat unclear and sadly, technology moves much faster than legislation. The worst part is that users won’t even know if they are paying more than others for the exact same item.