New coalition launches against ‘surveillance advertising’

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Thirty-plus privacy, consumer and anti-monopoly groups are coming together to stop big tech platforms from tracking and categorizing individuals for the purpose of narrowly targeting advertising.

The broad coalition, launched Monday, is calling for a ban on the practice they term “surveillance advertising.”

“Behavioral advertising, targeted advertising, what Facebook has tried to describe as personalized advertising, really feels like they’re trying to describe it as if they’re doing us a favor, when in reality they are extracting our data, they’re exploiting us and they’re selling us to advertisers,” said Rishi Bharwani, director of partnerships and policy at Accountable Tech, one of the member groups. 

“So we just thought it was a more appropriate term,” he explained to The Hill.

The coalition argues that the data collection and advertising practices of the biggest platforms — specifically Facebook and Google, which are the two dominant players in the digital advertising space — increase the spread of misinformation, hate speech and extremism by incentivizing the companies to try to keep users engaged and online as much as possible. 

Morgan Harper, a senior adviser at the American Economic Liberties Project, told The Hill that surveillance advertising also boosts the market power of the Silicon Valley giants.

“To us, this helps them to entrench their market power that is already quite intense,” she said in an interview. “The amount of data that they’re collecting enables them to have a really detailed sense of the online activity of various individuals, and then [use] that to fuel an ad business … that helps to entrench this power and then also push out competition.”

The coalition also points to mounting research suggesting that the kind of targeted advertising conducted by big platforms is not even that effective and that its reach is overstated.

In response to concerns that taking away the ability to target advertising might hurt organizations trying to reach vulnerable communities, Harper argued that the harms “are so great that we think they outweigh the marginal benefit.”

The coalition is not proposing any one solution for a post-surveillance advertising internet, instead choosing to focus on ending the practice first.

“As a coalition, we are first and foremost focused on taking the energy that’s out there, both among grassroots individuals and in the anger in the wake of Jan. 6 and demonstrating the power and momentum that’s behind us,” Bharwani said, pointing to a recent poll run by Accountable Tech that found 81 percent of Americans polled said they would rather keep personal data private even if it meant they would less relevant ads.

“The No. 1 message that I think we are trying to send is there’s an enormous appetite to take dramatic action here,” he added.

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