Proliferating Predation: Reverse Redlining, the Digital Proliferation of Inferior Social Welfare Products, and How to Stop It
50 Pages Posted: 14 Jan 2020 Last revised: 23 Mar 2020
Date Written: December 30, 2019
The political economy is beginning to recognize the scope of surveillance capitalism and the influence that the major platforms have on democracy, competitive markets, and civil rights. It is also waking up to discriminatory algorithms and the manipulative nature of digital advertising. However, academics have yet to focus on the civil rights and consumer protection violations that result from ad-targeting for inferior, even harmful versions of essential consumer goods and services, which I call social welfare products. This article aims to fill that gap. It analyzes how the digital advertising platforms and data brokers enable reverse redlining — predatory targeting of low-income and minority communities for harmful products — through segmentation, targeting, and ad-delivery. These manipulative technologies are invisible to consumers and operate largely out of view to policymakers, behind the high walls of corporate conference rooms and the digital mazes of complex algorithms. Nevertheless, providers of inferior social welfare products leverage these tools to manipulate low-income and minority consumers to buy their products at a staggering efficiency and scale. Using the for-profit education industry as a case study, this article decodes the technology, considers legal challenges to the harms that result, and proposes policy changes to increase civil rights and consumer protections. It offers new evidence of the ways for-profit universities identify their target consumers, leverage ad-platforms to find those consumers, and manipulate them to purchase a poor education, harming consumers at scale. Civil rights, consumer protection, and privacy laws each offer avenues to redress harms from the manipulative practices, but a patchwork legal regime built in a different era makes redress difficult. In conclusion, the article builds on the foundation of civil rights protections for basic needs like housing, employment, and credit to propose new civil rights and consumer protection regulation to limit the reverse redlining of social welfare products. This social welfare product approach addresses First Amendment and affirmative action concerns with a precisely tailored policy response.
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