An international coalition of consumer protection, digital and civil rights organizations as well as data protection experts have added their voice to the growing demands for a ban on so-called “surveillance-based advertising”.
The objection is against a form of digital advertising that relies on a massive background computing machine that soaks up information about individuals as they browse and use services to create profiles that are used to determine which advertisements to display (across multiple participants). Processes such as the high-speed auctions known as real-time bidding).
The leading data protection supervisory authority of the EU previously called for a ban on targeted advertising that is based on comprehensive tracking – and warns of a large number of associated legal risks.
Last autumn, the EU Parliament also called for stricter rules for behavior-based advertising.
Back in March, a US coalition of data protection, consumer, competition and civil rights groups jointly set the goal of microtargeting. As a result, there is growing pressure on lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic to crack down on exploitative adtech as consensus builds on the harm associated with massive surveillance-based manipulation.
At the same time, the momentum for privacy-friendly consumer technologies and services is clearly increasing – which shows that users and innovators are placing increasing emphasis on business models that respect people’s data.
The increasing spread of such services underscores how alternative, legal digital business models are not only possible (and accessible with many freemium offers) but are also becoming increasingly popular.
In an open letter to EU and US policy makers, the international coalition – which consists of 55 organizations and more than 20 experts, including groups such as Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, the Center for Digital Democracy, the New Economics Foundation , Beuc, Edri and Fairplay – calls for legislative measures and calls for a ban on advertisements based on the “systematic commercial monitoring” of Internet users in order to serve what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg euphemistically describes as “relevant advertising”.
The problem with Zuckerberg’s (self-serving) framing is that, as the coalition points out, the vast majority of consumers don’t really want to be spied on to be served with these creepy ads.
Any “relevance” claimed is irrelevant to consumers who find ad stalking creepy and uncomfortable. (And imagine how the average internet user would feel if they could look behind the curtain on Adtech – and see the vast databases that are used to heavily profile people to allow their attention to be sliced and commercialized can be sold to the highest bidder).
The coalition cites a report examining consumer attitudes towards surveillance-based advertising, produced by one of the signatories to the letter (the Norwegian Consumers Council; NCC) who found that only one in ten people are positive when commercial Actors collect information about them online. and only one in five thinks that ads based on personal information are okay.
A full third of respondents said they were “very negative” about micro-targeted ads – while nearly half said advertisers shouldn’t be able to target ads based on personal information.
The report also highlights the feeling of powerlessness among consumers when they go online. Six out of ten respondents think they have no choice but to reveal information about themselves.
This finding should be of particular concern to EU policymakers as the bloc’s data protection framework is designed to give citizens a set of rights over their personal data that should protect them from being heavily armed for information – including the Stipulating that if a data controller intends to rely on the consent of the user to process the data, then the consent must be informed, concrete and voluntary; it cannot be stolen, heavily armed, or sneaked through with dark patterns. (Though all too often it stays that way.)
Forced consent is not legal under EU law – but according to the NCC’s European survey, the majority of respondents feel they have no choice but to sneak up on using the internet.
This, in turn, points to a continued failure by the EU to enforce major adtech-related complaints, many of which have been filed under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in recent years – some of which are now over three years old (but still not t led to action against rule breakers).
In recent years EU lawmakers have acknowledged problems with the patchy enforcement of the GDPR – and it is interesting to note that the Commission has proposed some alternative enforcement structures in its recent proposals on digital regulation, such as: B. for the supervision of very large online platforms in the Digital Services Act (DSA).
In the letter, the coalition suggests the DSA as the ideal legislative tool to curb a ban on surveillance-based advertising.
Negotiations on a final proposal to be voted on by the EU institutions are ongoing – but it is possible that the EU Parliament will take the baton to push for a ban on surveillance advertising. It has the power to amend the Commission’s legislative proposals and its consent is required for the adoption of draft laws. So there is still a lot to play.
“In the US, we are calling on lawmakers to enact comprehensive data protection laws,” added the coalition.
The coalition supports its call for a ban on surveillance-based advertising with another report (also from the NCC) that shows the arguments against microtargeting. The extensive personal profile and data trading in the background of the adtech industry have grown.
The concerns listed focus not only on how dire privacy abolition practices are for individual consumers (which allow the manipulation, discrimination and exploitation of individuals and vulnerable groups), but also point to the harm to digital competition as a result of mediation and cannibalizing adtech platforms and data brokers to generate revenue for publishers, undermining, for example, the ability of professional journalism to sustain itself and creating the conditions in which ad fraud could thrive.
Another claim is that surveillance-based advertising is jeopardizing the general health of democratic societies – as the apparatus and incentives encourage the amplification of misinformation and create security risks and even national security risks. (Strong and independent journalism is of course also a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.)
“That harms consumers and businesses and can undermine the foundations of democracy,” warns the coalition.
“While we recognize that advertising is a major source of income for online content creators and publishers, it does not justify the massive commercial surveillance systems that have been put in place to ‘get the right people off the ground,'” the letter said further. “There are other forms of advertising technology that do not rely on spying on consumers, and cases have shown that such alternative models can be implemented without a significant impact on sales.
“There is no fair compromise in the current surveillance-based advertising system. We encourage you to take a stand and consider a ban on surveillance-based advertising as part of the Digital Services Act in the EU and enact a long overdue federal data protection act in the US. “
The letter is just the latest volley against “toxic adtech”. And advertising giants like Facebook and Google have seen pro-privacy writing on the wall for several years.
Hence, Facebook claims that privacy is at stake; his plan to secure his first-party data advantage (by merging the infrastructure of different messaging products); and his keen interest in crypto.
That’s why Google has also been working on a batch of alternative adtechs to replace third-party tracking cookies. Although its proposed replacement – the so-called “privacy sandbox” – would still make it possible to use its algorithms to group groups of internet users in an opaque manner into “interest” buckets for advertising targeting purposes, which also still does not apply to internet user rights looks good. (Concerns have also been raised on the competitive front.)
As for its “sandbox” proposal, Google might well consider the possibility of laws that prohibit or at least control microtargeting. And so it seeks to move forward with the development of alternative adtechs that have roughly the same targeting potency (while maintaining their market power) but could potentially bypass a ban on “microtargeting” techniques by exchanging individuals for cohorts of web users.
Legislators dealing with this issue must therefore be wise in drafting laws to combat the harm caused by surveillance-based advertising.
In any case, they will if they want to prevent the same old manipulations from continuing on a small and large scale.
The NCC report points to “good alternatives” to digital advertising models that do not rely on systematic consumer monitoring. And which – as it is also argued – give advertisers and publishers “more overview and control over where and which advertisements are placed”.
The problem of ad fraud is certainly massively underestimated. But, well, it’s revealing to remember the number of times Facebook has had to admit issues with self-reported ad metrics …
“It is possible to sell advertising space without relying on intimate details about consumers. There are already solutions in place to place advertisements in relevant contexts or where consumers themselves indicate which advertisements they would like to see, ”noted Finn Myrstad, director of digital policy at the NCC, in a statement.
“A ban on surveillance-based advertising would also pave the way for a more transparent advertising marketplace and reduce the need to share large chunks of advertising revenue with third parties such as data brokers. A level playing field would help give advertisers and content providers more control and retain a larger share of sales. “