This Group Wants to ‘Ban Surveillance Advertising’

When the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google testify later this week at a House listening to, plenty of acquainted coverage reforms will likely be on the desk. Antitrust. Section 230. Privacy laws.

A brand new marketing campaign needs to add one other daring concept into the combination: “Ban Surveillance Advertising.” In an open letter posted in the present day, the coalition defines surveillance promoting as “the practice of extensively tracking and profiling individuals and groups, and then microtargeting ads at them based on their behavioral history, relationships, and identity.” That enterprise mannequin is on the coronary heart of how Facebook and Google earn money. And, the letter argues, it’s harming society. It spurs an arms race for person consideration, which in flip incentivizes algorithms that favor polarizing and excessive content material and teams. It helps Google and Facebook dominate the marketplace for digital promoting on the expense of the information media. In quick, the letter concludes, the surveillance promoting mannequin provides corporations a monetary motive to construct merchandise that “stoke discrimination, division, and delusion.” The letter is signed by 38 teams, together with privacy-focused establishments like EPIC, human rights organizations like Avaaz, and antimonopoly teams just like the Open Markets Institute—plus the creators of the documentary The Social Dilemma.

Exactly one yr in the past, I published an article with the considerably cheeky headline, “Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?” At the time, the concept that this apply ought to merely be prohibited was, I wrote, “quietly gaining adherents,” however it was hardly a motion: a journalist right here, a tech founder there, a couple of regulation professors. The notion was nonetheless in its infancy. 

Loads has occurred since then to change folks’s attitudes. The Covid pandemic has been accompanied by waves of on-line scams and harmful health-related misinformation. (Remember “America’s Frontline Doctors”?) The racial justice motion sparked by the killing of George Floyd introduced civil rights teams extra deeply into discussions of how hate speech travels on-line. And the viral unfold of conspiracy idea actions like QAnon and “Stop the Steal” confirmed how far the nation has drifted from residing in a shared actuality. These issues all level again to the facility of on-line platforms to form America’s (and the world’s) data ecosystem, and the incentives that decide how they wield that energy.

“I was frankly shocked by how much appetite there was for this, and by how receptive folks were to the pitch,” mentioned Jesse Lehrich, a cofounder of the advocacy group Accountable Tech. According to a January poll commissioned by Accountable Tech, 81 % of respondents mentioned they’d be in favor of reforms to “ban companies from collecting people’s personal data and using it to target them with ads.” By distinction, solely 63 % mentioned they supported breaking apart corporations like Facebook and Google, one other concept that has been proposed by lawmakers like Elizabeth Warren.

Lehrich got here up with the thought for focusing on surveillance promoting after the assault on the Capitol on January 6, which appeared to affirm many individuals’s worst fears concerning the real-world penalties of on-line discourse. He ran it by Sarah Miller, the chief director of the American Economic Liberties Project and a former member of the Biden administration transition crew, who helped refine the thought. The two then reached out to different teams of their networks.

The coalition argues that banning surveillance promoting ought to come as well as to, not on the expense of, different reforms. “We refer to it as this regulated competition approach,” mentioned Morgan Harper, a senior adviser on the AELP. Competition reforms like structural separations and breakups, she mentioned, go hand in hand with outlawing troubling enterprise practices. “But if you just rely on the regulation, it can actually serve to entrench the market power of these platforms and not really do anything to improve the competitive landscape.”

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