Two members of the House of Representatives, and one member of the Senate, have proposed a new bill attempting to ban targeted advertising. “The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act” is aimed at both “advertising facilitators” and “advertisers” themselves. An advertising facilitator is defined in the bill as a person that “receives monetary consideration or another thing of value to disseminate an advertisement,” and would cover social media platforms on which targeted ads are considered to do the most harm.
Surveillance advertising vs contextual advertising
Whilst the bill attempts to ban “surveillance advertising,” it specifically allows for “contextual advertising,” which is a far less intrusive means of commercial and political promotion. Contextual advertising does not rely on profiling the user based on characteristics. Instead, it focuses on targeting relevant ads based on information that a user has specifically searched for, or based on something the user is specifically viewing. For example, if a user is reading an article about cycling, contextual advertising would work by displaying an advert promoting a cycling helmet.
The bill tries to curb the selling and sharing of personal information, which has become a key component of modern advertising practices
It will affect what has become the key business model of Facebook, Google and other platforms allowing for tailored advertising. It would be a massive blow against the culture of mass data collection and profiling that has become a source of worry and concern in the wake of increased awareness about the destructive mental health effects of social media algorithms.
Specifically, it would prohibit “advertising facilitators” from providing advertisers with “a list of individuals or connected devices”, “contact information of an individual,” “a unique identifier that may be used to identify an individual or a connected device,” or “other personal information that can be used to identify an individual.”
It prevents “advertisers” from targeting the “the dissemination of an advertisement,” meaning it prevents advertisers from intentionally directing adverts towards individuals or groups based on specific characteristics. This is designed to overcome the discriminatory effects of targeted advertising, which has been weaponised as part of political campaigns.
The 2016 election in America for example, saw the Trump campaign deliberately target black voters. The usage of advertising in this way sets a dangerous precedent, in which information that informs democratic functions is either withheld or promoted based on a person’s identity, so a politician might effectively hide certain elements of their policy from groups that might be harmed by it.
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The bill doubles down on the fight against the data market, by making clear that advertisers cannot direct adverts towards people “based on personal information… that the advertiser has purchased or otherwise obtained from another person (other than an individual to whom the personal information pertains).”
They also cannot target adverts based on information that “identifies an individual as a member of a protected class,” which would prevent adverts being targeted based on race, nationality of origin, age or gender, amongst other features. This may help avoid the use of advertising that exploits particular groups, like the elderly, by preying on common insecurities or vulnerabilities shared by that class of people. For example, it would prevent the targeting of weight loss supplements to people at particular risk of eating disorders.
The proposed bill, which was announced on Tuesday, comes just as the Digital Services Act (DSA) wins a plenary vote in the European Parliament
The DSA, which was approved by the European parliament today, would, if accepted by the European Council and the European Commission, ban the targeting of advertisements towards children amongst other measures. Although many Members of the European parliament had proposed a total ban on targeted advertising, this was met with resistance from MEPs concerned with the potential detriments to smaller businesses reliant on advertising, leading to the compromised amendment.
Digital Services Act: MEPs have agreed a draft set of measures to tackle illegal content, ensure platforms are held accountable for their algorithms and improve content moderation ↓
— European Parliament (@Europarl_EN) January 20, 2022
As pointed out by Axios, the bill is, however, unlikely to gain as much traction in America as the DSA has in Europe. The slow passage of the National Privacy Law, which attempts to harmonise national privacy requirements across states, possibly suggests not only division surrounding the efficacy of privacy laws, but also a lower political drive with regards to data regulation in the US.
An ad lobby, The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), has none-the-less already begun a lobbying campaign, focusing on the possible detriment of the bill to small business, which interestingly is the same reason that a total ban on targeted advertising was rejected by the European parliament.
Even if the bill fails to make it into law, it is still indicative of a growing trans-Atlantic effort to target intrusive ad practices, seen also in the “age appropriate design code” implemented in the UK last year, which restricts the amount of data platforms can legally collect on children. This is despite the fact that the effort is more pronounced in Europe than in America.
Given the impracticality of adjusting data behaviour across regions and states, regulations on data usage established in Europe are likely to affect the way advertising facilitators like Facebook behave in the US, and vice-versa. Hence, growing pressure on tech companies from both sides of the Atlantic to change the way they use data, as demonstrated by this bill and the DSA, represents a challenge that may not be easily shrugged off.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Facebook. Featured Photo Credit: Dawid Sokołowski.