A ban on behavioral advertising could go a long way toward addressing a host of complaints about Big Tech, ranging from accusations that social platforms are harming teens to claims that tech companies are putting newspapers out of business, the prominent advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation argued this week.
“Many of the ills of today’s internet have a single thing in common: they are built on a system of corporate surveillance,” the group writes in its new report, “Privacy First: A Better Way to Address Online Harms.”
The group argues that several legislative proposals under consideration -- including bills to ban TikTok, force social platforms to revise editorial practices, or allow news organizations to jointly negotiate with tech platforms -- are misguided. Instead of those proposals, the advocacy organization says, lawmakers should outlaw behavioral targeting -- meaning serving ads to users based on their activity across sites and apps.
“Whatever online harms you want to alleviate, you can do it better, with a broader impact, if you do privacy first,” the group writes.
For instance, the group argues, curbs on data collection for commercial purposes could address fears that China spies on TikTok users.
“Minimize how much information all tech companies can collect and thereby limit the information that can be sold or given away,” the group writes.
Similarly, according to the organization, lawmakers could address concerns about Instagram's or TikTok's impact on teens by banning behavioral targeting, instead of attempting to regulate how the services display content to minors.
“The current accumulation of personal data -- and the advertising industry that it fuels -- is the starting point of a lot of online harm to children,” the organization writes. “If you ban online behavioral advertising, you remove most of the incentive to collect and weaponize children’s preferences to get them to buy more things, and along with it many of the concerns about social media use by kids.”
Regarding journalism, the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that a law limiting tracking while allowing contextual ads -- meaning ads related to the content on the page -- would remove “much of the edge that the giants now enjoy.”
“While a tech company may know everything about a reader’s web history and recent purchases, no one knows more about the content of a publication than its direct publisher,” the organization writes.
The News/Media Alliance, which represents newspapers and magazines, seems less enthusiastic about the prospect of banning behavioral targeting. That organization told the Federal Trade Commission last year that small and mid-size publishers rely on programmatic advertising, and that “readers prefer targeted advertising if done correctly without excessive surveillance or obscure tracking practices.”
“Any privacy regulations should be designed to help ensure that data collection and profiling can be done responsibly and openly,” the News/Media Alliance wrote in comments to the agency.
Separately, the ad industry has made no secret of its opposition to potential bans on behavioral targeting.
Last year, organizations including Privacy for America, the Association of National Advertisers and the Interactive Advertising Bureau, urged lawmakers to abandon the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, which would have outlawed behavioral advertising. Those groups wrote that the bill “would stifle that data-driven economy by prohibiting the collection and use of basic demographic and online activity data for efficient, responsible advertising.”