Biden warns against surveillance advertising

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If the leaders of Big Tech platforms thought geopolitics would relieve their companies during Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address, they were wrong. In a speech that covered a lot of ground, the president took the time to berate social media companies for what he called “the nationwide experiment they’re running on our kids for profit.” Biden called on Congress “to strengthen privacy protections, to ban targeted advertising to children, to demand that tech companies stop collecting personal data about our children.”

Although only a passing reference, Biden’s call to ban targeted advertising for children — which drew notable applause — was a milestone. Regulating targeted advertising was not even close to a mainstream idea until recently. Now it’s in the State of the Union.

Not too long ago, the most high-profile example of federal lawmakers dealing with online advertising was when Orrin Hatch asked Mark Zuckerberg, during the CEO’s first-ever appearance before Congress, how Facebook was winning. money with a free product. Zuckerberg went viral for his deadpan: “Senator, we’re running ads.”

Hatch actually knew that Facebook was selling ads; he was feigning ignorance for rhetorical effect, as legislators often do in hearings. No matter. The exchange went viral as a supposed example of how out of touch Congress was when it came to technology. Facebook employees wore T-shirts with Zuckerberg’s phrase printed on them. Look at these old morons: they don’t even know how social media companies make money. How will they ever regulate them?

As recently as two years ago, Congress hadn’t made much progress on this front. In a March 2020 article titled “Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?” I wrote about a small group of thinkers who were beginning to publicly attribute a litany of evils to the practice of tracking users to serve them personalized ads. Obviously, this includes almost anything related to online privacy breaches. When a Catholic priest was fired for frequenting gay bars, for example, it was thanks to his employers using Grindr geo-targeting data that exists primarily to help target ads. But micro-targeted advertising is also linked to other problems. It diverts ad revenue from organizations that create media content to aggregation platforms that keep the largest files on users. And that’s arguably boosting incentives for platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to relentlessly optimize user engagement.

Corn small was the key word to describe this group of critics: a lawyer here, a professor there. There was little indication that they had made progress with the people who could actually effect change. Congress had spent two years discussing what to do with Big Tech, especially social media. But its members had paid little heed to the business model that drives it.

This is no longer the case. Over the past year, lawmakers have begun to focus on the advertising model that underpins social media platforms, which is increasingly being referred to as “surveillance advertising”, a term that not only captures targeting, but the data collection that targeting requires. . (That’s partly thanks to a push from an advocacy group called Ban Surveillance Advertising, which launched in March 2021.) “The problem is with the business model,” said Congresswoman Kelly Armstrong (R -ND) during an audition in December. “One that is designed to grab attention, collect and analyze what grabs that attention, and place ads.” And so he asked, “Should we restrict targeted advertising? In January, House Members Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), introduced the Surveillance Advertising Ban Act. That same month, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced a bipartisan bill to regulate the online advertising market more like the stock market, directly challenging Google’s current status as a buyer. , vendor, and primary market for targeted ads.

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