Washington proposes ban on targeted ads

Capitol Hill Building in Washington DC. [Brandon Bourdages/Shutterstock]

Three US lawmakers on Tuesday tabled the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act, a proposal aimed at banning the use of personal data for targeted advertising.

The legislation would effectively ban advertisers from using personal data other than broad location targeting. It would still allow for contextual advertising based on the type of content with which the user is interacting.

The draft bill was introduced on Tuesday (18 January) on the initiative of three members of the US Congress, Anna Eshoo and Jan Schakowsky, and Senator Cory Booker. Although all three politicians are Democrats, they have committed to building a bipartisan consensus.

“Surveillance advertising is a predatory and invasive practice. The hoarding of people’s personal data not only abuses privacy but also drives the spread of misinformation, domestic extremism, racial division, and violence,” said Senator Booker.

“With the introduction of the Ban Surveillance Advertising Act, advertisers will be forced to stop exploiting individuals’ online behaviour for-profit, and our communities will be safer as a result,” he added.

The bill received the support of several NGOs, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Consumer Federation of America, and privacy-friendly tech firms such as DuckDuckGo and Proton.

Several privacy-sensitive academics also voiced their support, including Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism author, and Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s centre for media and politics.

“The bills would outright ban the business model currently underlying the Internet,” said Omer Tene, a partner at Goodwin law firm.

“It could have both anticipated and unexpected effects on the dynamics of competition, resource allocation and content distribution online,” Tene added, arguing that the same tech giants the bill is intended to target might be those that benefit from it the most.

Nevertheless, for the three lawmakers targeted advertising is incompatible with human autonomy and democratic values. Societal harms range from sexual and racial discrimination to manipulation of voting behaviour and foreign interference.

In the EU, the European Commission has recently launched a proposal to regulate advertising for political purposes, introducing strict transparency requirements and banning the use of sensitive data such as political and sexual orientation, race and gender.

EU Commission presents new rules for political ads

The European Commission launched a proposal to regulate political advertising, introducing transparency obligations for marketers and strict limits to the use of sensitive personal information.

The proposal was published on Thursday (25 November) to protect the electoral process and democratic debate …

However, for the US lawmakers preventing the use of specific categories of data does not fully address the core problem of engagement-based algorithms designed to maximise profit. Similarly, banning ads that might be particularly sensitive, such as political ones, is considered a significant step forward but still insufficient as the practices are seen as hard to ringfence.

The proposal echoes provisions advanced by the Tracking-Free Ads Coalition, a cross-party group of MEPs, in the context of the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA), landmark EU proposals to regulate the digital space.

“The transatlantic push is historical. A movement that has started in the EU extends to the home estate of Big Tech,” said MEP Paul Tang, a prominent member of the Tracking-Free Ads Coalition.

“This will push the EU and US governments to put regulating tracking ads on the agenda of the Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council meetings.”

On both the DMA and the DSA, the coalition did not obtain a majority for a total ban, facing resistance from right-wing and centrist EU lawmakers concerned with the potential economic impact on SMEs. The compromise found entails a ban only for minors and the prohibition for using sensitive data without explicit consent from the user.

However, the group of MEPs tabled three amendments ahead of the plenary vote on the DSA on Thursday (20 January). The last-minute changes would put users in a better condition to refuse consent to the processing of personal data while also reinforcing the ban on processing personal data from minors.

DSA cramped with amendments ahead of key vote in the European Parliament

Over a hundred alternative amendments were tabled on the DSA ahead of the plenary vote, with some critical comebacks and reformulations of existing proposals.

The amendments are a mixed bag of new bids, bring-backs of measures discarded in the consumer protection …

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

Subscribe to our newsletters