An international coalition of consumer protection, digital and civil rights organizations, and data protection experts has added its voice to growing calls for a ban on what’s been billed as “surveillance-based advertising”.
The objection is to a form of digital advertising that relies upon a massive apparatus of background data processing which sucks in information about individuals, as they browse and use services, to create profiles which are used to determine which ads to serve (via multi-participant processes like the high-speed auctions known as real-time bidding).
The EU’s lead data protection supervisor previously called for a ban on targeted advertising that relies upon pervasive tracking — warning over many associated rights risks.
Last fall, the EU parliament also urged tighter rules on behavioral ads.
In March, a US coalition of privacy, consumer, competition, and civil rights groups also took collective aim at microtargeting. So the pressure is growing on lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic to tackle exploitative adtech as consensus builds over the damage associated with mass surveillance-based manipulation.
At the same time, momentum is clearly building for pro-privacy consumer tech and services — showing the rising store being placed by users and innovators on business models that respect people’s data.
The growing uptake of such services underlines how alternative, rights-respecting digital business models are not only possible (and accessible, with many freemium offerings) but increasingly prevalent.
In an open letter addressing EU and US policymakers, the international coalition — which is comprised of 55 organizations and more than 20 experts including groups like Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, the Center for Digital Democracy, the New Economics Foundation, Bec, 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 likes, euphemistically, to refer to as ‘relevant ads’.
The problem with Zuckerberg’s (self-serving) framing is that, as the coalition points out, the vast majority of consumers don’t actually want to be spied upon to be served with these creepy ads.
Any claimed ‘relevance’ is irrelevant to consumers who experience ad-stalking as creepy and unpleasant. (And just imagine how 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 diced for commercial interests and sold to the highest bidder).
The coalition points to a report examining consumer attitudes to surveillance-based advertising, prepared by one of the letter’s signatories (the Norwegian Consumer Council; NCC), which found that only one in ten people are optimistic about commercial actors collecting information about them online — and only one in five think ads based on personal information are okay.
A full third of respondents to the survey were “very negative” about microtargeted ads — while almost half think advertisers should not be able to target ads based on any form of personal information.
The report also highlights a sense of impotence among consumers when they go online, with six out of ten respondents feeling that they have no choice but to give up information about themselves.
That finding should be particularly concerning for EU policymakers as the bloc’s data protection framework is supposed to provide citizens with a suite of rights related to their personal data that should protect them against being strong-armed to hand over info — including stipulating that if a data controller intends to rely on user consent to process data, then consent must be informed, specific and freely given; it can’t be stolen, strong-armed or sneaked through using dark patterns. (Although that remains all too often the case.)
Forced consent is not legal under EU law — yet, per the NCC’s European survey, most respondents feel they have no choice but to be crept on when they use the Internet.
“A ban on surveillance-based advertising would also pave the way for a more transparent advertising marketplace, diminishing the need to share large parts of ad revenue with third parties such as data brokers. A level playing field would contribute to giving advertisers and content providers more control and keep a larger share of the revenue.”