The case against surveillance advertising


Senate Democrats recently introduced a bill that would ban surveillance advertising — the heart of the business model of Google, Facebook, Twitter and several other tech companies. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted for the bill this week — and on a bipartisan basis, no less. In response, of course, armies of tech lobbyists are flooding Congress.

They should not succeed in their aim to derail this legislation, which should be passed as soon as possible. Surveillance advertising is unnecessary, dystopian and socially toxic.

The scale of surveillance advertising alone is horrifying when you stop to think about it. Big Tech has created a pervasive and inescapable panopticon beyond the wildest dreams of the East German secret police. Virtually everyone’s communication, friend networks, shopping habits and physical location are tracked in great detail every minute of every day. The fact that the resulting information is usually only used to try to convince people to buy things isn’t comforting at all – it’s still incredibly scary.

Tech apologists often argue that surveillance is okay because customers have (usually) consented to it by checking a box at the end of a 900-page End User License Agreement. It’s ridiculous. There is generally no way to use technology hardware and services – much of which is a near or absolute necessity for modern life, employment and education – without mindlessly accepting the entire document. .

No one reads or thinks about these terms because there really isn’t a choice. To say that people “consented” to this in any meaningful way is like the Golden Age oligarchs claiming that workers “consented” to giving up their union rights with a yellow dog contract. If you ask people directly about the idea instead of burying it in a lengthy mandatory legal document, four in five say surveillance advertising should be banned.

Moreover, the mere existence of such a system is a violation of privacy and practically an engraved invitation to blackmail, including by the state. Back in the 1960s, when the FBI was trying to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into killing himself, it took years and a ton of money and work to build a dossier of compromising personal information. (Incidentally, there was a lot of that – a reminder that even great moral exemplars often have unfortunate vices that nevertheless don’t concern the cops or the public.) Now much more complete information is available for the FBI or CIA , which are arguably more anarchic today than 70 years ago, with a single click. The same goes for the countless employees of Big Tech companies as well as the hackers who might gain access to their data systems.

It’s true that behemoths like Google and Facebook are making a lot of money from surveillance advertising, and banning it would seriously disrupt their approach. But it’s not like they would go bankrupt – they could still sell traffic ads, and they would still be the biggest players in a game where surveillance advertising was also banned for their competitors.

And anyway, it’s not hard to see how making these companies less powerful and less profitable would serve the public good. The rise of Google and Facebook has come at the cost of considerable damage to the journalism industry. As David Dayen points out in The American perspective, news outlets marketed themselves to advertisers with audience research, that is, broad demographic information rather than personalized individual records. Giant tech platforms destroyed this business model and took most of the ad money. As a result, publications of all kinds were ruined, especially local news. Many small and even medium-sized towns no longer functionally have any local political coverage, and that void in many cases has been filled by paranoid Facebook and Nextdoor groups.

Finally, it’s not even clear whether targeted advertising is better for businesses than normal advertising. These platforms have a lot of dazzling hype about the alleged ultra-precision of their Big Brother machine, but we’ve all been targeted with ads for things we’d never consider buying. (I constantly get car insurance ads even though I’ve never owned a car in my life.) Or there are those who follow you around for weeks flogging something you’ve already bought.

Google and Facebook have also been caught repeatedly lying about their stats. They allegedly conspired against advertisers to rig online ad markets, and a study found that advertisers pay a significant premium for targeted ads that are only 4% more effective than non-targeted ads. Where these ads are “successful” is even worse: the targeting feature has allowed advertisers to unlawfully discriminate, showing housing and job ads, for example, only to users belonging to certain demographic groups.

Normal advertising, for all its problems, does not carry these risks. And it’s not like it’s hard to advertise when the only options are TV, newspapers, radio, magazines, billboards, flyers, untargeted web ads and the word of mouth. Let’s stop Big Tech from selling our contact information and enjoy good privacy again.


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