The digital advertising industry of course denies the bad rap that surveillance advertising has accrued. It argues that getting rid of behavioral targeting would make it harder for small businesses to reach customers and would force consumers to pay for services that are currently free. Those talking points are crafted to appeal to business-minded legislators, but at a hearing Tuesday morning, even representative Greg Pence (R-IN), the former vice president’s less famous brother, was skeptical that small businesses benefit from targeted advertising. “I wrestle with that,” he said. “I hear that a lot front the small businesses that use social media. Some it’s good for, but the vast majority says, ‘It gets nothing for me.’”
For a long time, surveillance advertising pretty much ran in the background, driving the economic fortunes of Big Tech companies while receiving very little scrutiny. Those days seem to be over.
“It’s a big deal to see something like that on the State of the Union agenda, especially given how many things are happening in the world right now,” says Jesse Lehrich, the cofounder of the advocacy group Accountable Tech, who helped organize the Stop Surveillance Advertising coalition. It would be a bigger deal still, Lehrich says, if the call to ban surveillance advertising extended beyond just protecting kids.
But “think of the children” seems to be the easiest bipartisan starting point for a Congress that struggles to get much of anything done, and has been spinning its wheels on privacy regulations for years. In fact, that’s not just true in the US. In the European Union, an effort to get a surveillance ad ban into the upcoming Digital Services Act faces long odds, but the EU Parliament did pass an amendment banning targeted ads for kids. (The law still has yet to be finalized.) No one in power seems to want to line up to defend pervasive targeting and tracking of minors. Last year, Facebook itself announced that it would stop allowing advertisers to target users under 18 using data gleaned from other websites and apps, though a federal ban would likely go much further.
“The FTC and Congress should use their limited resources to modernize COPPA and COPPA enforcement rather than waste time and money on misguided efforts to ban the reasonable use of data for advertising purposes,” said Lartease Tiffith, executive vice president of public policy for the Interactive Advertising Bureau trade group, in an emailed statement, referring to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 2000.
As it happens, Senator Ed Markey, the author of COPPA, introduced an update to the law last spring that would ban behavioral ad targeting of minors—a sign of how much momentum the idea has.
Duncan McCann, who works on children’s privacy issues in Europe, told WIRED last year that children’s rights were the gateway to getting people to care about surveillance advertising.
“Back in 2018, it was seen as crazy to talk about banning surveillance advertising,” he said. But talking to parents about their children’s privacy got them interested. “I realized, maybe the way into getting society to care about this is first of all getting society to care about it from a children’s perspective.”