When the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google testify later this week at a House hearing, a number of familiar policy reforms will be on the table. Antitrust. Section 230. Privacy legislation.
A new campaign wants to add another bold idea into the mix: “Ban Surveillance Advertising.” In an open letter posted today, the coalition defines surveillance advertising 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 business model is at the heart of how Facebook and Google make money. And, the letter argues, it’s harming society. It spurs an arms race for user attention, which in turn incentivizes algorithms that favor polarizing and extreme content and groups. It helps Google and Facebook dominate the market for digital advertising at the expense of the news media. In short, the letter concludes, the surveillance advertising model gives companies a financial motive to build products that “stoke discrimination, division, and delusion.” The letter is signed by 38 groups, including privacy-focused institutions like EPIC, human rights organizations like Avaaz, and antimonopoly groups like the Open Markets Institute—plus the creators of the documentary The Social Dilemma.
Exactly one year ago, I published an article with the somewhat cheeky headline, “Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?” At the time, the idea that this practice should simply be prohibited was, I wrote, “quietly gaining adherents,” but it was hardly a movement: a journalist here, a tech founder there, a few law professors. The notion was still in its infancy.
Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?
A lot 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 “America’s Frontline Doctors”?) The racial justice movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd brought civil rights groups more deeply into discussions of how hate speech travels online. And the viral spread of conspiracy theory movements like QAnon and “Stop the Steal” showed how far the country has drifted from living in a shared reality. These concerns all point back to the power of online platforms to shape America’s (and the world’s) information ecosystem, and the incentives that determine how they wield that power.
“I was frankly shocked by how much appetite there was for this, and by how receptive folks were to the pitch,” said Jesse Lehrich, a cofounder of the advocacy 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 companies from collecting people's personal data and using it to target them with ads.” By contrast, only 63 percent said they supported breaking up companies like Facebook and Google, another idea that has been proposed by lawmakers like Elizabeth Warren.
Lehrich decided to take aim at surveillance advertising after the assault on the Capitol on January 6, which seemed to confirm many people’s worst fears about the real-world consequences of online discourse. He ran it by Sarah Miller, the 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 banning surveillance advertising should come in addition to, not at the expense of, other reforms. “We refer to it as this regulated competition approach,” said Morgan Harper, a senior adviser at the AELP. Competition reforms like structural separations and breakups, she said, go hand in hand with outlawing troubling business 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.”
On its website, the coalition has published easy-to-understand explanatory materials outlining its argument and addressing possible objections. No, banning surveillance advertising won’t destroy Facebook and Google; it will just reduce their profit margins. No, small businesses don’t need this technique to survive; in fact, small business formation was stagnant for most of the last decade even as surveillance advertising became more ubiquitous.
If nothing else, the campaign would be useful if it made the term “surveillance advertising” catch on. One of the many tricky things about discussing digital ad targeting based on user data is that there isn’t any great, widely understood terminology for the phenomenon itself. “Targeted advertising,” the phrase in the headline to my story from a year ago, is too broad; there’s nothing wrong with “targeting” an ad to readers of WIRED, for example. “Microtargeting” is better, but doesn’t get at why the practice is troubling. What really defines the dominant model of digital ad tech is that it’s based on keeping track of where we go, what we do, whom we know.
“Surveillance advertising” could solve the rhetorical problem. It much more neatly evokes the target of reform than do accurate but clunky phrases like “cross-context behavioral targeting.”
The movement faces a steep challenge, of course, slick website and clever branding notwithstanding. So far, Congress has yet to prove that it can take action in any of the areas that are already within the Overton window for regulating Big Tech, like a federal privacy law, updated antitrust statutes, and revisions to Section 230. Still, every reform proposal has to start somewhere. Banning the surveillance business model has graduated from a provocation advanced by chin-stroking journalists to a concrete demand made by people with connections to DC decision makers. That’s something.