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The Privacy Advisor | A trans-Atlantic discussion on 'surveillance-based advertising' Related reading: How Google and Apple are shaking up adtech



Whether they are signing a child up for soccer league, registering themselves for tennis lessons or purchasing an item online, “people are being tracked everywhere they go,” said Congresswoman Lori Trahan, D-Mass.

“The bottom line is that consumers are completely unaware of how they are being tracked and just how pervasive that surveillance really is, and they have little to no understanding of the profile of data that is being collected by platforms, and they certainly don’t have any ability to opt-out or to edit that data,” Trahan said during a discussion on "surveillance-based advertising," titled “Transatlantic discussion: Time to ban surveillance-based advertising?” and hosted by the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. 

During the forum, Trahan and Member of European Parliament Alexandra Geese addressed issues presented by surveillance-based advertising, including misinformation, discrimination and privacy, as well as the role regulation can play in protecting consumers and whether an all-out ban is the way to go.

Geese believes it is.

“Do we want pervasive surveillance in a free and democratic society? I don’t think we do. I don’t think that is compatible,” she said.

Technology companies’ algorithms push content that “triggers negative emotions,” like disinformation and hate speech, and that content is now a source of revenue for companies, Geese said. It is “a very strong incentive,” she said, noting Facebook earns 98% of its revenue from targeted advertising, and Google 70%. In Europe, the EU General Data Protection Regulation would be a disincentive, she said, but “we unfortunately fail to enforce it against the global giants.”

“The first thing we can do is ban surveillance-based advertising, which is at the moment a very huge part of the surveillance universe because it’s where the money comes from,” Geese said. “We don’t want to live in a world with surveillance.”

While marketing is intended to be a relationship between a product and a potential consumer, Trahan said large tech companies are in control of that relationship. She likened online users to “sailors stuck on a sinking ship,” with no choice but to remain on “dominant platforms that are whittling away their data rights while tracking their every move.”

Apple’s recent iOS update offered “the first chance to jump ship,” she said, with an opportunity to opt-out of tracking without having to leave a platform altogether, “and that’s the lifeboat users have been looking for.”

“When we’re talking about solutions, we’re talking about redesigning so you put consumers at the center. You give them more control. That’s what they want,” she said.

While it is “heartening” the U.S. is “starting to talk about comprehensive privacy legislation,” Trahan said it is clear provisions around acceptable data use, particularly in the digital advertising space, will be necessary.

“I think we have to make sure that government actually acts here, just like has happened in the EU,” she said. “It gives me incredible optimism that we have more people now framing that conversation and talking about doing it imminently.”

This May, Trahan introduced the Social Media Disclosure and Transparency of Advertisements (DATA) Act, which would require platforms that use digital advertising to maintain a database for researchers to study the impact of targeted ads on consumers. The legislation would “shine a light on the data currently being held under lock and key by these platforms” and “illuminate the wide-ranging harms of surveillance-based advertising,” she said.

“The public does not understand how they are being surveilled. It’s so abstract to folks and so I think making that self-evident will really start to shape the direction that we go in terms of policy restrictions,” Trahan said. “These platforms were not designed putting the customer or the consumer at the center of the experience. You can flip this by giving consumers the ability to control and to own their own data. It is their data.”

Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

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