For the first 35 years of my life, like most Americans, I was exposed to lots of advertising. I absorbed billboards and print ads and direct mailers and television commercials and radio jingles. I learned about available products and services, and chose which ones I wanted. Some businesses I patronized survived and others didn’t. The economy mostly proceeded apace.
Then, over the last decade, this form of marketing became seen as insufficient—or rather, the rise of digital media made a more invasive form of marketing too irresistible. Instead of having to cast a wide net in searching for potential customers, advertisers now could know every intimate detail about those customers beforehand. They began targeting people geographically and behaviorally, based on common interests or things they liked in social media or what they wrote in emails to friends. The surveillance economy was born.
The surveillance economy should die. This manner of advertising doesn’t serve the public and it’s not even clear it serves advertisers. It facilitates monopoly, as those with the biggest data troves receive all the ad dollars. That centralizes the potential for and magnitude of abuse, with Big Data used to discriminate against groups, steer vulnerable people to financial scams, and meddle in U.S. elections. Cambridge Analytica’s scraping of 87 million user profiles through a simple personality quiz, and then weaponizing that information on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, revealed how information on social media is inherently insecure. Now Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is appearing before Congress on Tuesday to explain how this won’t happen again.
But instead of leaving regulation to Facebook, or devising one Rube Goldberg scenario after another to try to protect consumer data, the U.S. can take one simple, legal step to roll back this dystopian nightmare: ban targeted advertising.
Here’s what we’ve learned about personalized ads in just the past few weeks: Advertisers armed with Big Data can ensure housing or employment advertisements don’t reach African-Americans or Hispanics, discriminating on the basis of race. Scam companies and grifters can use targeted ads to find an environment of “suckers” prone to believing their pitches. The capture and storage of personal information itself creates a target, prone to data harvesting and breaches. Companies luring advertisers want to expand this data trove; Facebook recently sent a doctor to talk with top hospitals about acquiring patient data, which could violate medical confidentiality rules.
Facebook and Google, the surveillance economy’s leading lights, collect this data primarily as a resource for advertisers. Digital ad spending surpassed television ad spending globally for the first time; targeted data is prized. A stated goal of the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner is to collect a broader range of viewer data to conduct stronger ad targeting.
Do the benefits of targeted ads for consumers outweigh the risks and downsides of mass data collection? That’s unclear. Back when targeted ads didn’t follow me around the internet, I still somehow found what I wanted to buy. The social value is dubious, if they even work. (We’ve all had the experience of buying something online and then getting ads for the same product for weeks, as if we needed two pair of the same shoes.) Most surveys of targeted ads are conducted by advertisers and are completely unreliable.
Is targeting good for media companies that get top dollar for access to their audience? No. Facebook and Google have decimated brand value by tracking people across the web, not only when they visit the Wall Street Journal or Seventeen magazine. Do advertisers get more value from personalization? This is not proven. Tech platforms have repeatedly been caught lying to advertisers about the reach and effectiveness of their ads. Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest advertiser, cut its budget for targeted digital ads last year because they found it to be a waste of money.
There’s nothing wrong with media companies sampling their audiences to determine average income or age or voting preferences; market research has been a staple of advertising for decades. But when you build specific profiles of individuals, copy the information, and distribute it for use by advertisers, problems emerge. And the government cannot enforce what it cannot see, so the abuses occur far under the radar.
It’s obvious the surveillance economy’s biggest practitioners won’t police themselves. Mark Zuckerberg has been apologizing for Facebook’s extraction of user data for 14 years. He has alternately said Facebook would globally apply European data privacy requirements, and then that it wouldn’t. He has said that Facebook’s systems prevented hate speech and genocide in Burma, and human rights groups called him a liar. Facebook now says it will demand authentication for political advertisers and inform users whose data was improperly shared. But we should not expect a for-profit company to perform the activities of a government regulator.
There’s no question the U.S. government has the right to regulate advertising, and even limit it. The Federal Trade Commission monitors advertising and marketing to prohibit unfair or deceptive practices and enforce truth-in-advertising laws. The U.S. evens regulates the volume of television ads.
And there’s already precedent for banning ads in the U.S. The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act banned cigarette ads on TV and radio in 1971. Smokeless tobacco ads were banned in 1986. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2010 extended the ban to event sponsorships and promotional material like T-shirts or hats. The Telephone Disclosure and Dispute Resolution Act banned marketing of 900-number ads to children under the age of 12, one of several measures restricting advertising to kids. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act bars data collection, the raw materials of targeted ads, from children under 13.
The ban I propose would be rather straightforward: The U.S. would disallow all individually targeted ads, with large fines or even removal from the public airwaves for repeated violations. Nothing tied to a user’s identity should be used to serve them a particular message. Companies would have to make all ads on its networks publicly viewable and searchable, so regulators can oversee them.
The ban would remove the financial incentive to collect data and spy on users. Companies still might do it, to understand what keeps users on their sites. But competitors can overcome that by delivering compelling and useful content, which may actually become important again.
As Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain explains in The New York Times, consent is too much of a burden on users. The U.S. could require an opt-out of data collection, as they’re about to do in Europe, but Facebook says that would be a “paid product,” creating a two-tiered divide on a service fundamental to modern life. The U.S. could change nothing and try to use fines after the fact to affect corporate behavior, but we know from the banking industry that this doesn’t work. There are options like making tech platforms legally responsible to act in the best interests of users, or creating nonprofit web 2.0 alternatives. But the easiest way to eliminate the darkest forces of the internet is to ban targeted ads.
My wife is in advertising, and her first reaction to this proposal was that lots of people at ad companies and tech firms would be fired, which is true. But when globalization destroyed hundreds of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs, few elite policymakers batted an eyelash. When longstanding professions like taxi drivers and truckers get “disrupted,” it’s seen as the march of progress. That thousands of well-educated, well-trained innovators might have to find another line of work is worth the price of ridding the country of the surveillance economy. I have far more confidence that a Bay Area coder will land on their feet than a textile worker in the South in the 1980s.
The tech-platform giants have been the main beneficiaries of the surveillance economy, their earnings skyrocketing the moment they unleashed the power of mass spying. Facebook, without personalized ads, would still have an audience of two billion users. Google, without personalized ads, would still host billions of searches daily on their site. Surely their executives can figure out how to translate that into profit. In fact, Facebook would be likely to survive without taking one advertising dollar from Western countries.
Anyway, ensuring the profitability of tech companies is not the government’s concern; protecting the public is.
When Zuckerberg appears before a joint Senate committee on Tuesday, someone ought to ask him why Facebook users should be forced to accept targeted advertising. He should be asked to make the case for its existence—not only why targeted advertising is more beneficial than traditional advertising, but why he thinks the associated dangers are worth the risk. If the question leaves him speechless, that would be perhaps the most honest answer of all.