When the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google testified later this week during a trial in the House, a number of well-known policy reforms will be on the table. Antitrust. Section 230. Privacy Legislation.
A new campaign wants to add another daring idea: ‘Ban Surveillance Advertising’. In an open letter posted today, the coalition defines surveillance advertising as ‘the practice of locating individuals and groups on a large scale and then micronizing ads on them based on their behavioral history, relationships, and identity.’ The business model is at the heart of how Facebook and Google make money. And according to the letter, it harms society. This leads to an arms race for the attention of users, which in turn encourages algorithms that favor polarizing and extreme content and groups. It helps Google and Facebook dominate the digital advertising market at the expense of the news media. In short, the letter concludes that the surveillance advertising model gives businesses a financial motive to build products that ‘build up discrimination, division and error’. The letter was signed by 38 groups, including privacy-oriented institutions such as EPIC, human rights organizations such as Avaaz, and antimonopoly groups such as the Open Markets Institute – plus the creators of the documentary The social dilemma.
Exactly one year ago, I published an article with the somewhat brutal headline: “Why do we not ban targeted advertising?” At the time, the idea was that this practice should simply be banned, according to my ‘silent supporters’, but it was hardly a movement: a journalist here, a technical founder there, a few law professors. The idea was still in its infancy.
Since then, a lot has happened to change people’s attitudes. The Covid pandemic was accompanied by waves of online scams and dangerous health-related misinformation. (Remember “America’s top doctors”?) The racial movement caused by the murder of George Floyd has brought civil rights groups into deeper discussions about how hate speech travels online. And the viral spread of conspiracy theory movements like QAnon and ‘Stop the Steal’ has shown how far the country has drifted into a shared reality. These concerns point to the power of online platforms to shape America’s and the world’s information ecosystem, and the incentives that determine how they use their power.
“I was honestly shocked at how much appetite there was for this, and how receptive people were to the field,” said Jesse Lehrich, a co-founder of the accounting group Accountable Tech. According to a January poll Commissioned by Accountable Tech, 81 percent of respondents said they would be in favor of reforms to “ban businesses from collecting and using people’s personal data to target them with advertising.” In contrast, only 63 percent said they support the breakup of companies like Facebook and Google, another idea proposed by lawmakers like Elizabeth Warren.
Lehrich decided to advertise oversight after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which apparently confirms the worst fears of many people about the real consequences of online discourse. He was led by Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project and a former member of the Biden administration transition team, who helped refine the idea. The two then reached out to other groups in their networks.
The coalition argues that the ban on surveillance advertising should come above and beyond other reforms. “We call it this regulated competition approach,” said Morgan Harper, a senior adviser at the AELP. According to her, competition reforms, such as structural divisions and disruptions, go hand in hand with the ban on worrying business practices. “But if you just rely on regulation, it can hedge the market power of these platforms and not really do anything to improve the competitive landscape.”