International coalition joins call to ban ‘surveillance advertising’ – TechCrunch
A international coalition consumer, civil and digital rights organizations and data protection experts added their voice to growing calls to ban what has been touted as “surveillance-based advertising.”
The objection is to a form of digital advertising that relies on a massive background data processing device that sucks information about individuals, as they browse and use services, to create profiles that are used to determine which advertisements to run (via multi-participant processes such as high-speed auctions known as real-time auctions).
The EU’s main data protection supervisor has previously called for a ban on targeted advertising that relies on ubiquitous tracking – warning of a host of rights risks.
Last fall, the European Parliament also called for stricter rules on behavioral advertising.
In March, a US coalition of privacy, consumer, competition and civil rights groups also collectively targeted micro-targeting. Pressure is therefore increasing on lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic to combat ad exploitation as a consensus builds on the damage associated with manipulation based on mass surveillance.
At the same time, a momentum is clearly building for privacy-friendly technologies and consumer services, showing that users and innovators are placing a rising store on business models that respect data. people.
The growing adoption of these services underscores how alternative and rights-respecting digital business models are not only possible (and accessible, with many freemium offerings) but increasingly popular.
In one open letter addressing policy makers in the EU and the US, the international coalition – which includes 55 organizations and over 20 experts, including groups like Privacy International, Open Rights Group, Center for Digital Democracy, New Economics Foundation, Beuc, Edri and Fairplay – urges legislative action, calling for a ban on ads that rely on ‘systematic commercial surveillance’ of internet users to serve what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg euphemistically likes to call “Relevant advertisements”.
The problem with Zuckerberg’s (selfish) framing is that, as the coalition points out, the vast majority of consumers don’t want to be spied on for being served with these scary ads.
Any so-called “relevance” is irrelevant to consumers who find ad harassment scary and unpleasant. (And imagine what the average internet user would feel if they could peek behind the adtech curtain – and see the vast databases where people are profiled at scale so their attention can be sliced and cut into. dice for commercial interests and sold to the highest bidder).
The coalition points to a report examining consumer attitudes towards surveillance-based advertising, prepared by one of the signatories of the letter (the Norwegian Consumer Council; NCC), which found that only one in ten people support the fact that marketers collect information about them online – and only one in five ads based on personal information are acceptable.
A third of survey respondents were “very negative” about microtargeted ads, while almost half believe that advertisers should not be able to target ads based on any form of personal information.
The report also highlights a feeling of powerlessness among consumers when they go online, with six in ten respondents feeling that they have no choice but to share information about themselves.
This finding should be of particular concern to EU policymakers, as the bloc’s data protection framework is supposed to provide citizens with a series of rights related to their personal data that should protect them from being heavily armed. to transmit information, in particular by stipulating that if a controller intends to rely on the user’s consent to process the data, then the consent must be informed, specific and freely given; it cannot be stolen, armed or sneaked using dark patterns. (Although this is still the case too often.)
Forced consent is not legal under EU law. Yet, according to the European NCC survey, a majority of people believe they have no choice but to be crawled when using the Internet.
This in turn indicates a continued breach of EU law enforcement over major ad technology-related complaints, of which dozens have been filed in recent years under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). – some of which are now over three years old (but still have not given rise to any action against offenders).
Over the past two years, EU lawmakers have recognized issues of uneven application of the GDPR – and it is interesting to note that the Commission has suggested alternative enforcement structures in its recent digital regulatory proposals, such as as the oversight of very large online platforms in the Digital Services Act. (DSA).
In the letter, the coalition suggests the DSA as the ideal legislative vehicle to contain a ban on surveillance-based advertising.
Negotiations to craft a final proposal on which EU institutions will have to vote remain ongoing – but the European Parliament may take over in pushing for a ban on surveillance ads. It has the power to modify the legislative proposals of the Commission and its approval is necessary for the adoption of bills. So there is still a lot to play.
“In the United States, we are urging lawmakers to pass comprehensive privacy legislation,” the coalition adds.
The coalition backs its call to ban surveillance-based advertising with another report (also by the NCC) which presents the case against microtargeting – summing up the range of concerns that have been attached to manipulative advertisements as the awareness of the broad profile of people and data commerce of the tech industry advertising has increased.
The concerns listed not only focus on how horrific the stripping of privacy practices are for individual consumers (allowing manipulation, discrimination and exploitation of individuals and vulnerable groups), but also signal the harm. caused to digital competition due to the intermediation and cannibalization of advertising platforms and data brokers. publishers’ revenues – eroding, for example, the ability of professional journalism to survive and creating the conditions in which advertising fraud has been able to thrive.
Another claim is that the overall health of democratic societies is threatened by surveillance-based advertising – as the device and incentives fuel the amplification of disinformation and create security risks, even national security risks. . (Strong, independent journalism is, of course, also an essential part of a healthy democracy.)
“It hurts consumers and businesses and can undermine the cornerstones of democracy,” the coalition warns.
“While we recognize that advertising is an important source of income for creators and publishers of online content, this does not justify the massive commercial surveillance systems put in place to try to ‘show the right people the right people.’ “, the letter continues. “Other forms of ad technology exist, which do not depend on consumer spying, and cases have shown that such alternative models can be implemented without significantly affecting revenue.
“There is no fair trade-off in the current surveillance-based advertising system. We encourage you to take a stand and consider a surveillance-based advertising ban under EU digital services law, and the US enactment of a federal privacy law. long-awaited privacy.
The letter is just the latest salvo against “toxic adtech”. And advertising giants like Facebook and Google have – for several years now – seen the pro-privacy writing on the wall.
Hence the alleged “pivot to privacy” of Facebook; its plan to lock in its first-party data advantage (by merging the infrastructure of different messaging products); and his keen interest in crypto.
This is also why Google has been working on an alternative adtech stack that it wants to replace third-party tracking cookies. Although its proposed replacement – the so-called “Privacy Sandbox” – would still allow groups of Internet users to be opaquely grouped by its algorithms into “interest” compartments for ad targeting purposes, which still doesn’t look good for internet rights either. . (And concerns have been raised on the competitive front as well.)
Regarding its “Sandbox” proposal, Google may well take into account the possibility of legislation banning – or at least controlling more closely – microtargeting. And so he’s trying to move forward with the development of alternative adtech that would have roughly the same targeting power (while maintaining its market power) but, swapping individuals for cohorts of web users. , could potentially circumvent the ban on “micro-targeting” techniques.
Lawmakers who address this issue will therefore need to be smart about how they draft laws designed to tackle the damage caused by surveillance-based advertising.
They certainly will if they are to prevent the same old abuses of small and large-scale manipulation from continuing.
The NCC report points to what it calls “good alternatives” for digital advertising models that do not depend on systematic consumer surveillance to function. And who – he also argues – offers advertisers and publishers “more oversight and control over where ads are displayed and what ads are served.”
The problem of ad fraud is certainly massively underestimated. But, well, it’s instructive to remember how many times Facebook has had to “admit to trouble with self-reported ad metrics …
“It is possible to sell advertising space without relying on intimate details about consumers. Solutions already exist for serving ads in relevant contexts, or when consumers themselves declare which ads they want to see, ”NCC’s director of digital policy Finn Myrstad said in a statement.
“A surveillance-based advertising ban would also pave the way for a more transparent advertising market, thereby reducing the need to share a large chunk of advertising revenue with third parties such as data brokers. A level playing field would help give more control to advertisers and content providers and keep more of the revenue. “