Commentary

Banning 'Surveillance Advertising' Would Harm Publishers

A watchdog group this week argued the Federal Trade Commission should outlaw a practice called “surveillance advertising.” It’s an intentionally scary-sounding term to evoke worries that Big Brother is watching what people do online and nefariously showing them… targeted advertising?

In its 32-page petition, Accountable Tech contends that a blanket ban on the practice of collecting personal data and using the information to target people with advertising as they move across the internet would be the best way to diminish its harmful effects on consumers, advertisers and publishers.

The plan likely would backfire by not helping any of these groups, while bolstering Facebook, Google and Amazon’s dominance in the U.S. digital ad market.

Accountable Tech doesn’t take issue with contextual display advertising, which is still a common method for targeting audiences based on their interests in specialized content. Contextual ads don’t require data collection, though their value is diminished if publishers can’t demonstrate their effectiveness with metrics, including business outcomes.

The group also doesn’t object when publishers collect personal data from readers and keep it in-house rather than expanding “beyond the boundaries of their website to create a surveillance apparatus.” In other words, it’s arguing for a walled-garden approach that will preserve a source of revenue for smaller publishers.
Unfortunately, this solution may harm those publishers if they lose the ability to sell remnant inventory, or get ignored altogether because most advertisers and media buyers would prefer to work with the fewest publishers possible.

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