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Boston University School of Law




In this Article, we focus on a key dimension of commercial surveillance by data-intensive digital platforms that is too often treated as a supporting cast member instead of a star of the show: the concept of engagement. Engagement is, simply put, a measure of time, attention, and other interactions with a service. The economic logic of engagement is simple: more engagement equals more ads watched equals more revenue. Engagement is a lucrative digital business model, but it is problematic in several ways that lurk beneath the happy sloganeering of a “free” internet

Our goal in this Article is to isolate engagement as a distinct and dangerous concept that should be specifically regulated. There is a benefit to seeing past the glib justificatory rhetoric and taking a hard look at engagement-based, surveillance-advertising-funded models as potentially problematic. Unfettered engagement strategies bear significant and underappreciated costs that are endangering our privacy, our democracy, and our culture itself. It’s time that wrongful engagement, and the asserted “free” business models it generates, started to bear the burden of those costs.

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