Democrats unveil bill banning online ‘surveillance advertising’


On Tuesday, Democrats introduced a new bill that would ban nearly all use of digital ad targeting in ad marketplaces hosted by platforms like Facebook, Google and other data brokers.

The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act — sponsored by Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) — prohibits digital advertisers from targeting ads to users. It makes a few small exceptions, like allowing “broad” location-based targeting. Contextual advertising, such as advertisements specifically tailored to online content, would be permitted.

“The ‘surveillance advertising’ business model is premised on the improper collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting,” Eshoo, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement Tuesday. “This pernicious practice allows online platforms to hunt user engagement at great cost to our society, and it fuels misinformation, discrimination, voter suppression, privacy invasions and many other harms. The surveillance advertising business model is broken.

If passed, the bill would dramatically change the business models of Facebook and Google. For years, lawmakers have debated ways to regulate the tech industry on issues like privacy, misinformation, and content moderation. Eshoo and its co-sponsors say the tech industry’s current advertising models incentivize the spread of harmful content and encourage them to amplify harmful messages to keep users on their platforms.

The bill gives the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general the power to enforce the new ad targeting rules. It also allows individual users to sue platforms like Facebook and Google if they break the law, awarding up to $5,000 in damages per violation.

“Surveillance advertising is a predatory and invasive practice,” Senator Booker said in a statement Tuesday. “Hoarding people’s personal data not only violates privacy, but also promotes the spread of misinformation, domestic extremism, racial division and violence.”

Since Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress last year, lawmakers have introduced a number of new bills aimed at regulating social media algorithms to combat the spread of harmful content. Last October, House Democrats unveiled a measure that would remove Section 230 liability protections from a platform if their algorithms were found to have recommended harmful content to users.

During Haugen’s first Senate hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said the leaks confirmed “that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of children’s online safety.” He continued, “We know he chooses the growth of his products over the well-being of our children.”


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