Octavia DrexlerFebruary 18, 2022

Surveillance advertising sounds scary, and US lawmakers feel the same way. Maybe it's the negative connotation surrounding the word ‘surveillance’, or maybe surveillance paired with advertising is incongruous. Either way, democratic lawmakers are hoping to put a stop to surveillance advertising altogether by introducing a bill to ban surveillance advertising and limit the way ads are shown to consumers. 

What Is Surveillance Advertising? 

It’s not as scary as it seems. Surveillance advertising - more commonly known as targeted advertising or behavioral advertising, is when consumers are shown different advertisements based on demographic information, their interests, and their previous purchases/history. These behaviors are tracked through cookies, which is what advertisers depend on to get their ads to a wider audience. 

This information is also collected when users engage with social media, make purchases, play games, watch videos, or otherwise participate in the internet. Sometimes, users willingly give up their information, such as when users create accounts, make purchases, fill out questionnaires, enter contests, and other such activities that help to create a digital life, so to speak. Even without personal identifying information, surveillance advertising and the use of these helps give marketers a well rounded idea as to who their audience is. 

Why Do Lawmakers Want to Ban Surveillance Advertising? 

Lawmakers, especially Eshoo (D-CA), Schakowsky (D-IL), and Booker (D-NJ), want to ban surveillance advertising for a variety of reasons. On his twitter page, Senator Booker briefly commented on the bill he and the other two congresswomen introduced, stating that “advertisers will be forced to stop exploiting individuals’ online behavior for profit,” adding that these measures will keep [our] communities safe as well. 

Of course, Booker’s main concern has to do with privacy laws, which have been putting increased pressure on tech giants like Facebook/Meta, Instagram, and even Google - with Meta’s whistleblower scandal still fresh in everyone’s minds, it makes sense that lawmakers are trying to shield the public from exploitative companies. 

Congresswoman Schkowsky echoed Booker’s concerns, saying, “Surveillance advertising is at the heart of every exploitative online business model that exacerbates manipulation, discrimination, misinformation, and fundamentally violates people’s privacy in ways they would never choose if given a choice.” Here, Schkowsky is invoking Frances Haughen, the Facebook whistleblower, who also raised concerns about the harm that Facebook allegedly perpetuates. Mark Zuckerberg himself even acknowledged Schkowsky’s and Haughen’s concerns, apologizing for hate speech and misinformation that Facebook circulates, and the controversy surrounding that. 

Eschoo agrees with her fellow representatives, stating that surveillance advertising “fuels disinformation, discirmination, voter suppression, privacy abuses, and so many other harms.” Like Booker and Schkowsky, Eschoo is speaking to an audience that is growing more and more concerned with data privacy and what companies are doing to keep user data safe. 

What Does the Bill to Ban Surveillance Advertising Include?

The bill includes legislation that actively prohibits advertisers from using personal data to target their advertisements. This is an effort to save protected classes from data brokers who might use this sensitive information for nefarious purposes. The bill does mention that contextual ads are not prohibited, but that information collected in connection with ad delivery cannot be used to further target customers. 

The ban on surveillance advertising is - if passed by the US Government - going to be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as well as state attorney generals. These authorities have the power to fine advertisement companies anywhere from $100-$1,000 per violation and up to $500-$5,000 per intentional violation, including attorney’s fees. 

With increased concerns over data privacy - and with newfound knowledge on how consumer data is being used by tech magnates, it’s no surprise that the government wants to ban surveillance advertising. The ban hopes to make the internet a safer place for consumers, though some advertisers might find this new transition - if the bill passes - to be difficult to adapt to, as surveillance advertising has remained the bread and butter of digital marketing. Still, the bill has yet to be passed, and until then, it might be wise to try a few different methods of advertising that don't include getting a customer’s personal information.

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