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Democrats propose bill to ban surveillance advertising

Legislators say surveillance advertising is a 'toxic business model.'


Mikael Thalen


Posted on Jan 18, 2022   Updated on Jan 19, 2022, 10:02 am CST

A trio of Democrats in Congress announced new legislation on Tuesday aimed at banning what has been described as “surveillance advertising.”

Introduced by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calf.), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the “Banning Surveillance Advertising Act” aims to prohibit targeted ads based on a user’s personal data.

The bill would bar advertisers from targeting users based on “protected class information, such as race, gender, and religion, and personal data purchased from data brokers.”

Specifically, it would ban advertising facilitators like Google or Facebook from targeting ads using that kind of information. It does make exceptions for allowing the use of “broad” location targeting, like targeting ads to a specific municipality. It also allows for the use of “contextual advertising,” like showing ads based on what a user is engaging with.

The bill also proposed having the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general enforce violations of the law.

In a press release, Eshoo described surveillance advertising as a “toxic business model that causes irreparable harm to consumers, businesses, and our democracy.”

“The ‘surveillance advertising’ business model is premised on the unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting,” Eshoo said in a statement. “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.”

Numerous public interest organizations have voiced their support for the bill, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Demand Progress, and the Center for Digital Democracy.

Prominent companies such as the privacy-centric search engine DuckDuckGo as well as Proton Technologies, creator of the encrypted email service ProtonMail, have likewise backed the effort.

“Surveillance advertising is at the heart of every exploitative online business model that exacerbates manipulation, discrimination, misinformation, extremism, and fundamentally violates people’s privacy in ways they would never choose if given a true choice,” Schakowsky added. “The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act will 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.”

The legislation comes just months after the advocacy group Accountable Tech petitioned the FTC to begin cracking down on surveillance advertising. The group cited an executive order signed by President Joe Biden in July that urged the FTC to investigate “unfair data collection and surveillance practices.”

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*First Published: Jan 18, 2022, 4:25 pm CST