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Dear internet: we must ban targeted advertising immediately

Paul Jarvis, co-founder Fathom Analytics

Written by Paul Jarvis

Published on: April 8th, 2020

Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Google, Senate hearings, data breaches… targeted advertising has been in the news, as well as come under fire a lot lately.

What if—and hear me out on this—instead of trying to better regulate it, we flat-out banned it? The solution to one of our most challenging privacy issues of today could have the simplest answer.

If companies weren’t allowed to collect our personal data in the first place, nor use it to target us with ads based on that data, then there wouldn’t be any need to regulate or see the negative effects of targeted ads, because they wouldn’t exist.

Yes, this is how a lot of large tech companies make money. But if we all feel that what they’re doing is wrong, then maybe that should change. DuckDuckGo, for example, makes money from advertising, but they show ads based on search terms (not personal details of the person searching), which doesn’t involve any targeting based on personal data. So if we search for “vegan cinnamon rolls” in their search engine, we’d potentially be shown an ad for vegan cinnamon rolls (without them knowing anything about us, the people doing the searching).

Google and Facebook offer free services because they make a killing on advertising. Which, in itself, isn’t evil. But the way they do the advertising is, because they are in the business of behavioural advertising, which aims ads at everything from a person’s sexual orientation, to their perceived level of depression, to whether or not they might be pregnant, to their income levels. They’re able to then increase their revenue from ads by showing ads that people will want to click on, even if they’re inflammatory, hateful, manipulative or just plain false.

Behavioural advertising has been a boom for huge tech companies and their profits. It’s become such a revenue-flush business model that an entirely new ecosystem of data brokers now exists to buy and sell personal data between advertising companies and publishing companies. And unfortunately, because it’s not yet banned, it’s completely legal.

“The only reason that Facebook and others are collecting this data, buying this data—stealing this data—is because the data is so valuable,” David Heinemeier Hansson said, at a Congressional hearing. “If you reduce the value of that data to near zero, then the entire incentive disappears.”

Because this type of advertising is so profitable, it also means companies will go to great lengths to collect personal data about all of us, because they know how easy and legal it is to sell. Regulation of targeted ads is a bandaid, whereas banning them would be a solution. It would instantly fix privacy concerns, political manipulation, disinformation in ads and so much more.

This type of all-or-nothing ban on targeted ads wouldn’t be a step back into the dark ages of tech either. Companies would still be able to make specific and sometimes even intelligent suggestions to us, like if I watched Top Gear on Amazon’s Prime, it’d probably suggest The Grand Tour or Seamen (same topic, same hosts). Or Amazon may suggest a different flavor of Clif Bar if the one I’m looking at is sold out. But what the ban would do is stop companies from sharing/selling that data from their software with anyone else on the internet.

So I could be in Prime Video and see suggested content, but ads for The Grand Tour or Clif Bars wouldn’t follow me around the internet for months. Or even, if I search for something in a search engine, that search engine might suggest something better to search for, based on the words I used in my search. But, most importantly, that data would be used internally only. It wouldn’t be sold to data brokers, political campaigns, foreign governments or anyone else.

There are already people in the EU who have filed legal complaints arguing that behavioural or targeted advertising breaks the GDPR privacy law. Because most targeted ads shown to users are bid on by advertisers, users cannot consent to this real-time bidding, so it could be that it’s technically forbidden under GDPR. In California, new privacy laws could give users more rights to opt out of the sale and sharing of their data. So while a ban isn’t here, new laws at least seem to be shifting in that direction.

A ban on targeted advertising probably wouldn’t destroy every business that buys or sells ads. The only thing that’d stop existing is our, as users, personal data being bought and sold, and then used against us.

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