It would be a mistake for Congress to prohibit targeted advertising online
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The Internet has democratized access to information and delivered a dazzling array of free online services, like search, news, maps, and social media. But imagine a world where the next time you use a search engine, instead of seeing results, you see a requirement to enter a credit card. Or the next time you visit USA Today there is fewer content and even more ads on the screen. 

In this alternate world, you are bombarded with pop-ups and interstitials, all of which are asking for consent in various ways: blanket consent for use of all "sensitive" information, consent for use of some sensitive information, consent for use of sensitive and non-sensitive information, and so on. 

It's hard to argue that this world would be an improvement for user experience, much less user privacy.

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Nonetheless, this troubling future could become a reality if Congress passes the “BROWSER Act” – legislation that requires online websites and services to get affirmative consent from users before serving any ads based on their interests. The proposed legislation would create a nightmare “opt-in regime for interest-based ads.”

 

On its face, the BROWSER Act seems like pro-consumer privacy legislation. But it’s actually an awful deal for Americans who’ve come to depend on free online content and services.

The U.S. has been the global source for Internet innovation, enabling robust user experiences and content — without requiring you to pay anything at all. Of course, advertisers fund this “free” content, much like how broadcast radio and television.

Interest-based ads are the most common and cost efficient form of ads. They are a modern-day version of “know thy customer.” Rather than bombarding users with random pitches, interest-based ads show consumers fewer and more relevant ads, creating a more appealing and customized user experience. 

But the BROWSER Act would disallow interest-based ads by default. In doing so, the act would erase $340 billion in advertising revenue from American websites over the next five years. That’s because the Act requires users to opt-in to interest-based advertising and studies have shown that such an opt-in regime reduces online ads’ effectiveness by 65 percent. 

Some might initially celebrate this change. But celebration will change to mourning when they realize the price we’ll be paying when websites lose all this ad revenue. Because of the BROWSER Act’s $340 billion price tag, we’ll see one or more of these consequences:

  • Websites will show more ads to make up some of the lost revenue.
  • Websites will have less to spend on reporters, content, services, and innovation.
  • Some websites will erect paywalls for content that users get for free today.

All those consequences are bad for American consumers, especially low-income households that can’t afford to pay for online services. And erasing $340 billion from American websites hits small businesses and small organizations the hardest.

What's more, the opt-in regime created by the BROWSER Act isn’t even necessary. Already the online advertising industry is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and uses a self-regulatory program to let consumers to opt-out of personalized ads based on browsing history or app use.

In addition to opt-out tools, the three most popular web browsers already allow you to be anonymous when online.

This makes the BROWSER Act’s opt-in regime not only a solution in search of a problem, but also a “solution” that creates a huge problem on its own. It means that Americans would face a new trifecta of pain when going online – more paywalls, more ads, and less content and services. 

And those are not the Internet experiences you’re searching for.

Carl Szabo is senior policy counsel for NetChoice, a trade association of eCommerce businesses including AOL, Facebook, and 21st Century Fox.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.