What is surveillance advertising?
Surveillance advertising – the core profit-driver for gatekeepers like Facebook and Google, as well as adtech middlemen – is the practice of extensively tracking and profiling individuals and groups, and then microtargeting ads at them based on their behavioral history, relationships, and identity.
Are you calling on political and civil society organizations to stop running targeted ads on Facebook and Google platforms?
Absolutely not. Given the stranglehold Facebook and Google currently have on the digital ad market, and their outsized influence over the information ecosystem, political and civil society organizations can’t afford to cede this ground. Moreover, these are the very groups forced to counter paid disinformation campaigns, and the viral spread of ‘organic’ disinformation being amplified by the companies’ toxic algorithms.
Ultimately, upending this entire surveillance advertising business model is essential to the health of democracy. But until we get there, it makes no sense to put activists at a competitive disadvantage with bad actors and corporate interests; we saw the fallout from that approach when these platforms cynically froze political ads in the name of election integrity, while allowing dangerous conspiracy theories to run wild.
Would banning surveillance advertising threaten small businesses?
The rise of surveillance advertising over the past decade has made Facebook and Google among the world’s richest corporations – yet small business formation has plummeted.
These tech giants portray themselves as lifelines for small businesses, but the truth is that they’re simply charging monopoly rents for access to the digital economy. For years, they have cashed in by exaggerating ad metrics, illegally fixing prices, overselling the benefits of behavioral targeting, and depriving all parties of transparency.
Their dominance of the ad market – built on the mass-extraction and aggregation of personal data, anti-competitive practices, and false promises – has left small business owners with little leverage or choice. Leveling the playing field will empower entrepreneurs, publishers, and consumers alike.
Would Facebook and Google be forced to charge users for services that are currently free if we banned surveillance advertising?
In 2020, Facebook and Google boasted record-breaking profit margins of $29 billion and $40 billion, respectively. While these tech giants might deploy this scare-tactic, the notion that reverting to less invasive ad models would necessitate charging users for their platforms is absurd. Indeed, they continue to rake in money in places like the United Kingdom and California that have already taken steps to restrict surveillance advertising without switching to paid models.
Moreover, emerging companies like DuckDuckGo that avoid surveillance advertising entirely have demonstrated that it’s possible to earn profits and protect user privacy.