When CEOs From Facebook, Twitter and Google testify later this week at a House hearing, a number of well-known policy reforms will be on the table. Antitrust. Section 230. Privacy legislation.
A new campaign wants to add another bold idea to the mix: “Ban surveillance advertising.” In an open letter released today, the coalition defines surveillance advertising as “the practice of thoroughly tracking and profiling individuals and groups, and then targeting ads to them based on their behavioral history, relationships and identity.” This business model is at the heart of how Facebook and Google make money. And, argues the letter, it is hurting society. It sets off an arms race to grab the attention of users, which in turn encourages algorithms that favor polarizing and extreme content and groups. This helps Google and Facebook to dominate the digital advertising market at the expense of news media. In short, the letter concludes, the surveillance advertising model gives companies a financial incentive to create products that “fuel discrimination, division and delusion.” The letter is signed by 38 groups, including privacy-focused institutions like EPIC, human rights organizations like Avaaz, and anti-monopoly groups like the Open Markets Institute, as well as the creators of the documentary The social dilemma.
Exactly one year ago I published an article with the somewhat cheeky headline, “Why Not Just Ban Targeted Advertising?” At the time, the idea that the practice should just be banned was, I wrote, “quietly gaining adherents,” but it was hardly a movement: a journalist here, a founder of technology there, a few law professors. The notion was still in its infancy.
Much has happened since then to change people’s attitudes. The Covid pandemic has been accompanied by waves of online scams and dangerous health-related misinformation. (Remember “Primary care physicians in AmericaThe race for racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd has taken civil rights groups deeper into discussions of how hate speech circulates online. And the viral spread of conspiracy theory movements like QAnon and “Stop the Steal” has shown how far the country has strayed from living in a shared reality. These concerns are all reminiscent of the power of online platforms to shape the American (and global) information ecosystem and the incentives that determine how they wield that power.
“I was frankly shocked at the appetite for this and how receptive people were to the field,” said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of the Accountable Tech advocacy group. According to a january survey commissioned by Accountable Tech, 81% of respondents said they would support reforms to “prohibit companies from collecting people’s personal data and using it to target them with advertisements.” In contrast, only 63% said they supported the dissolution of companies like Facebook and Google, another idea proposed by lawmakers like Elizabeth Warren.
Lehrich came up with the idea of targeting surveillance advertising after the attack on Capitol Hill on January 6, which seemed to confirm many people’s worst fears about the real consequences of online speech. He led it by Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project and a former member of the Biden administration’s transition team, who helped refine the idea. The two then contacted other groups in their networks.
The coalition argues that the ban on surveillance advertising should complement, not at the expense of, other reforms. “We call it this approach to regulated competition,” said Morgan Harper, senior advisor to AELP. Competition reforms like separations and structural disruptions, she said, go hand in hand with banning troubling business practices. “But if you just rely on regulation, it can actually serve to strengthen the market power of these platforms and not really do anything to improve the competitive landscape.”