EU and US legislators are being urged to outlaw online targeting, amid claims it is actually “surveillance-based advertising”, with an international coalition of 55 consumer protection organisations, privacy groups and legal experts the latest to wade into the war against the adtech industry.
The coalition, which includes Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, the Center for Digital Democracy, the New Economics Foundation, Beuc, Edri and Fairplay, claims the “surveillance economy is sometimes erroneously presented as a trade-off, where consumers allow companies to track them in order to receive access to digital content”.
However, it adds, that “the ubiquity of commercial surveillance means that it is practically impossible to avoid being tracked, profiled and targeted”.
The letter cites a new report by the Norwegian Consumer Council, which shows that just one out of ten consumers were positive to commercial firms collecting personal information about them online, while only one out of five thought that serving ads based on personal information is acceptable.
Meanwhile a third of respondents to the survey were “very negative” about microtargeted ads — while almost half think advertisers should not be able to target ads based on any form of personal information.
The report also highlights a sense of impotence among consumers when they go online, with six out of 10 respondents feeling that they have no choice but to give up information about themselves.
The letter continues: “The surveillance-based advertising model facilitates systemic manipulation and discrimination, poses serious national security risks, funds disinformation and fraud, while also undermining competition and taking revenue away from content creators.
“This harms consumers and businesses, and can undermine the cornerstones of democracy. Although we recognise that advertising is an important source of revenue for content creators and publishers online, this does not justify the massive commercial surveillance systems set up in attempts to ‘show the right ad to the right people’.”
The consortium argues that other forms of advertising technologies do exist, which do not depend on spying on consumers, and cases have shown that such alternative models can be implemented without significantly affecting revenue.
A ban on surveillance-based advertising would also pave the way for a more transparent advertising marketplace, the consortium claims, diminishing the need to share large parts of ad revenue with third parties. A level playing field would contribute to giving advertisers and content providers more control, and keep a larger share of the revenue.
The missive concludes: “There is no fair trade-off in the current surveillance-based advertising system. We encourage you to take a stand and consider a ban of surveillance-based advertising as part of the Digital Services Act in the EU, and for the US to enact a long overdue federal privacy law.”
The letter is the latest attempt to get lawmakers to act; the first complaint – filed with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner and the UK Information Commissioner’s Office – was lodged in September 2018, aimed at triggering an EU-wide GDPR investigation into the practice.
However, nearly three years later and both investigations look no closer to a conclusion, although an investigation by the Belgian data protection authority recently found serious GDPR infringements by IAB Europe.
Earlier this month, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties filed a lawsuit in Germany against adtech industry group IAB Tech Lab, which develops digital ad industry standards.
In the legal challenge, being led by German law firm Spirit Legal, it is alleged that online users have never actively consented to this data being gathered or shared.
At the time, Johnny Ryan, a long-term crusader against the adtech industry and senior fellow at the ICCL, said: “By challenging the online advertising industry’s standards, our lawsuit takes aim at Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Verizon, AT&T and the entire online advertising and surveillance industry. This industry tracks us, and builds hidden dossiers about our most intimate secrets. Starting today, we mean to change that.”
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