A World Without Surveillance Advertising

By Michael Clauw

Last week, Facebook announced that it would be changing its policy to ban advertisers from targeting minors based on interest categories. Going forward, advertisers will only be able to target underage users based on their age, gender, and location. This followed criticism from advocacy groups, including CfA’s Tech Transparency Project (TTP), which published research showing that advertisers were able to target thousands of teens in countries around the world that Facebook had determined were interested in ‘alcoholic beverages’ and ‘smoking.’

It appears Facebook determined it would be an easier fix to eliminate interest-based advertising for teens altogether rather than determine why so many were tagged with age-inappropriate categories in the first place. Regardless, it was an obvious problem that needed to be fixed.

Yet, while this change marginally increases the protection of minors from harmful, targeted advertisements, it exposes the broader issue of the risks that similar ads pose to the rest of us. What about the countless adults struggling to break away from addictive vices like alcohol, smoking and gambling, whose internet searches allow Facebook to serve them up on a silver platter to advertisers wanting to draw them back in?

The harms of surveillance advertising go far beyond addiction. It has also fueled political divisiveness, which, arguably, has become one of the gravest societal ills. In the “old days,” political ads were shown mostly to broad television audiences, requiring at least a partial appeal to the middle. Attack ads were certainly common, but to be effective they generally were grounded in some sort of commonly accepted truth. Now, ads can be micro-targeted to vetted partisans who are ready to wholeheartedly accept vitriolic lies about their perceived political enemies. Last May, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (CA-18) introduced the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act to address this growing malice.

The problems with surveillance advertising don’t stop there. The practice can also be used to promote pseudoscience, enable discrimination, and fuel violent extremism. While the general public may not be aware of these clear harms, the fact is, most people are uncomfortable with the way that Facebook and Google make their money. A 2019 Pew Research poll found that 79% of Americans are concerned about how companies use the data they collect on them, and 81% said that the potential risks of having data collected on them outweigh the benefits.

In an attempt to mitigate this discomfort, Big Tech has launched numerous PR campaigns to convince the American people that our uneasiness is a necessity of living in a prosperous society. Tech companies do this by framing Big Tech regulation as harmful to small businesses. This strategy seems to be a direct response to public sentiment. A 2020 survey revealed that 75% of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in small businesses, with only 19% expressing that degree of confidence in big businesses. Put simply, while most Americans couldn’t care less about a dip in Facebook’s stock price, they maintain strong empathy for mom-and-pop businesses at risk of financial hardship.

While it’s true that thousands of small businesses use surveillance advertising to maintain a competitive edge, the framing of tech reform as a small business killer is disingenuous. Take for example, the case of Missouri-based Morgan Miller Plumbing, which TTP highlighted in a recent report about Big Tech’s use of small businesses as a PR front. The local plumbing company — whose CEO sits of the board of the Big Tech funded Connected Commerce Council — appeared in campaigns from both Facebook and Google, arguing that surveillance advertisements are crucial to small business success.

It’s likely true that Morgan Miller Plumbing’s efficient use of surveillance advertising gives them an edge over their local competitors, but it certainly doesn’t mean that the practice is helping the small business plumbing community as a whole. Every customer gained through surveillance advertising is one that a competing plumber loses.

This is by no means an indictment of any individual small business that engages in surveillance advertising. It is undoubtably effective, and choosing to take an ethical stand against it risks falling behind competitors who do not. But there are other options. Businesses can purchase contextual advertisements on platforms like Yelp to place their listing at the top of results when customers are searching for a specific service or product. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask businesses to meet the consumer where they are instead of following them everywhere they go.

Last year, TTP joined a coalition of advocates in calling for an end to surveillance advertising altogether. It may seem like a hefty task to dismantle the practice that serves as the fundamental business model for some of the world’s largest tech companies, but the current harms are too great not to try. It’s important to remember that surveillance advertising is only the status quo because Big Tech made it that way. Businesses succeeded long before surveillance advertising, and they will continue to succeed when the practice is ended.

Campaign for Accountability (CfA) uses research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose misconduct & malfeasance in public life.