US lawmakers propose bill to ban surveillance advertising

Gelo Gonzales
US lawmakers propose bill to ban surveillance advertising

META. A woman holds smartphone with Facebook logo in front of a displayed Facebook's new rebrand logo Meta in this illustration picture taken October 28, 2021

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The bill seeks to limit how specific online ads can be targeted

US lawmakers on Tuesday, January 18, unveiled a bill that seeks to curtail online advertising practices that target users using collected personal data – a bill that, if passed into law, would have a significant effect on tech giants such as Meta and Google and other online entities that collect data for advertising.

The proposed Banning Surveillance Advertising Act, as stated in a press release from US congresswoman Anna Eshoo, seeks to prohibit “advertising networks and facilitators from using personal data to target advertisements, with the exception of broad location targeting to a recognized place, such as a municipality.” It will also prohibit advertisers from targeting ads based on race, gender, religion, and personal data purchased from data brokers. 

Contextual advertising will be allowed, which the proposed measure defines as “advertising based on the content a user is engaging with.” Contextual ads, for example, include smartphone ads on a gadget publication or ads for ingredients in a food blog. 

The bill is a response to the growing awareness and concern that people have about surveillance capitalism or the mass harvesting of the personal data of users by companies for profit, and its effects on privacy and potential for behavior manipulation. Surveillance advertising is the use of this personal data in order to create very specific targeted ads. 

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Ads that are targeted based on a general location and the content of a particular page or website, as the bill would still allow, do not rely on specific personal information. 

“The ‘surveillance advertising’ business model is premised on the unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting. This pernicious practice allows online platforms to chase user engagement at great cost to our society, and it fuels disinformation, discrimination, voter suppression, privacy abuses, and so many other harms. The surveillance advertising business model is broken,” said Eshoo who co-sponsored the bill with fellow Democrats congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Senator Cory Booker.

The bill seeks to “put a stop to this repulsive practice and therefore protect consumers by removing the financial incentive for companies to exploit consumers’ personal information and help stop a morass of online harms,” said Schakowsky.

Organizations supporting the act include the Anti-Defamation League, which called for a Facebook boycott back in June 2020, US think tank Common Sense Media, and the Center for Digital Democracy, to name a few. Tech companies such as DuckDuckGo known for its privacy-focused search engine, and Proton, the company behind encrypted email service ProtonMail, have expressed their support as well. 

“The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act goes a long way to protect consumers from invasive ad practices, and would help reorient the internet toward an emphasis on privacy,” said Proton CEO Andy Yen.

Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, is also listed as among the academics supporting the bill. 

“Two decades later, surveillance capitalism travels far beyond these ad markets, owning and operating nearly all information spaces and challenging the very foundations of the democratic order. The time for law has come. A ban on surveillance advertising will begin to reverse the unbridled growth of this unaccountable power, finally asserting the rule of law and democratic governance over the critical infrastructures of our information society,” Zuboff said in her statement of support. –

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.