Consumer Federation of America has joined a broad coalition of consumer, privacy, civil rights, and anti-monopoly groups in a campaign to ban “surveillance advertising.” This is the practice of tracking and profiling individuals and groups, and then targeting them for ads based on their behavior, relationships, and other personal information. We’ve long been concerned about this practice.
Way back in 2007, in advance of a workshop the Federal Trade Commission held on “Ehavioral Advertising,” we joined several other organizations in comments urging the agency to take action to protect consumers, including creating a “Do Not Track List.” The concerns then were that the “collection, use, maintenance, and disclosure of personal and behavioral information for marketing purposes is a threat to consumers’ privacy rights.”
The FTC’s initial response was to encourage self-regulation for online behavioral advertising, which it later acknowledged failed to solve the problem. In the meantime, the development and use of facial recognition, license plate readers, smart phones and other internet-connected consumer devices, artificial intelligence, automated decision-making and other technological advances have raised privacy concerns to a whole new level. We’re increasingly living in a surveillance society in which our online activities, physical movements, communications on social media, and even our facial expressions are tracked to make assumptions about us and treat us in certain ways, and not just for marketing purposes. Law enforcement agencies can also purchase these types of data.
Intentionally or not, the algorithms that are used to determine who sees what advertisements can result in discrimination against people seeking jobs, housing, and other opportunities, and cause some to unfairly be charged more for products and services than others. That’s not right.
There are other concerns as well, from the monopolistic behavior of some ad giants and the detrimental impact it has on businesses to the ways that the surveillance advertising system helps to support websites that provide disinformation and propagate hate. Scammers also take advantage of the opportunity to target vulnerable consumers more precisely.
Do we need surveillance advertising to fund the internet and help people find what they’re looking for? No! Studies have shown that contextual advertising, in which relevant ads are displayed based on what people are doing online at that moment, with no need to collect personal data, works just fine, costs advertisers less, and can even increase revenues for websites that host the ads.