By: Laura Ames
Anyone who spends time online has encountered “surveillance advertising.” You enter something into your search engine, and immediately encounter ads for related products on other sites. Targeted advertising shows individual consumers certain ads based on inferences drawn from their interests, demographics, or other characteristics. This notion itself might not seem particularly harmful, but these data are accrued by tracking users’ activities online. Ad tech companies identify the internet-connected devices that consumers use to search, make purchases, use social media, watch videos, and otherwise interact with the digital world. Such companies then compile these data into user profiles, match the profiles with ads, and then place the ads where consumers will view them. In addition to basic privacy concerns, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) points to the potential for companies to hide personalized pricing from consumers or to promote unhealthy products and perpetuate fraud. Perhaps the largest concern is that the large stores of personal data that these companies maintain put consumers at risk of having their privacy invaded, identity theft, and malicious tracking.
In response to these concerns, Democratic lawmakers unveiled the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act (BSSA) in an attempt to restrict the practice and under a general consensus that surveillance advertising is a threat to individual users as well as society at large. This move prompted opponents to argue that the BSSA is overly broad and will harm users, small businesses, and large tech companies alike.
What Does the BSSA Do?
The BSSA is sponsored by Senator Cory Booker and Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Anna Eshoo. The bill bars digital advertisers from targeting their ads to users and also prohibits advertisers from targeting ads based on protected information like race, gender, religion, or other personal data purchased from data brokers. According to Senator Booker, surveillance advertising is “a predatory and invasive practice,” and the resulting hoarding of data not only “abuses privacy, but also drives the spread of misinformation, domestic extremism, racial division, and violence.”
The BSSA is broad, but it does provide several exceptions. Notably, it allows location-based targeting and context advertising, which occurs when companies match ads to the content of a particular site. The bill suggests delegating power to the FCC and state attorneys general to enforce violations. It also allows private citizens to bring civil actions against companies that violate the ban with monetary penalties up to $1,000 for negligent violations and up to $5,000 for “reckless, knowing, willful, or intentional” violations. The BSSA has support from many public organizations and a number of professors and academicians. Among several tech companies supporting the BSSA is the privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo. Its CEO, Gabriel Weinberg, opined that targeted ads are “dangerous to society” and pointed to DuckDuckGo as evidence that “you can run a successful and profitable ad-based business without building profiles on people.”
The BSSA as Part of a Larger Legislative Agenda
The BSSA is just one bill among a number of pieces of legislation aiming to restrict the power of large tech companies. Lawmakers have grown increasingly focused on bills regulating social media companies since Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress in 2021. These bills target a wide variety of topics including antitrust, privacy, child protection, misinformation, and cryptocurrency regulation. Most of these bills appear to be rather long shots, however, because although the Biden administration supports tech industry reform, so many other issues are high priorities for it. Despite this hurdle, lawmakers are currently making a concerted push with these tech bills because the legislature’s attention will soon turn to the 2022 midterms. Additionally, Democrats, who have broader support for tech regulations, worry they could lose control of Congress. Senator Amy Klobuchar argued that once fall comes, “it will be very difficult to get things done because everything is about the election.”
Tech and Marketing Companies Push Back
In general, tech companies tend to argue that targeted advertising benefits consumers and businesses alike. First, companies argue that this method allows users to see ads that are directly relevant to their needs or interests. Experts rebut this theory with the fact that in order to provide these relevant ads, tech companies must collect and store a great deal of data on users, which can put that data at risk of interference by third parties. Companies also argue that this legislation would drastically change their business models. Marketing and global media platform The Drum predicted that the BSSA “could have a massive impact on the ad industry as well as harm small businesses.” The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which includes over 700 brands, agencies, media firms, and tech companies, issued a statement strongly condemning the BSSA. IAB CEO David Cohen argued that the BSSA would “effectively eliminate internet advertising… jeopardizing an estimated 17 million jobs primarily at small- and medium-sized businesses.” The IAB and others argue that targeted advertising is a cost-effective way to precisely advertise to particular users. However, the CFA points to evidence that contextual advertising, which is allowed under the BSSA, is more cost-effective for advertisers and provides greater revenue for publishers.
Likelihood of the BSSA’s Success
In the past several years, there has been growing bipartisan support for bills addressing the increasing power of tech companies. This support would seem to suggest that these pieces of tech legislation have a better chance of advancing than other more controversial legislation. However, even with this broader support, dozens of bills addressing tech industry power have failed recently, leaving America behind a number of other countries in this area. One of the major problems impeding bipartisan progress is that while both parties tend to agree that Congress needs to address the tremendous power that tech companies have, they do not align on the methods the government should use to address the problem. For example, Democrats have called for measures that would compel companies to remove misinformation and other harmful content while Republicans are largely concerned with laws barring companies from censoring or removing content. According to Rebecca Allensworth, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, the larger issue is that ultimately, “regulation is regulation, so you will have a hard time bringing a lot of Republicans on board for a bill viewed as a heavy-handed aggressive takedown of Big Tech.” Given Congress’ recent track record in moving major pieces of legislation, and powerful opposition from the ad tech industry, the BSSA might be abandoned along with other recent technology legislation.