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US ad industry urges FTC to resist calls to ban online behavioural targeting

The Association of National Advertisers in the US has urged the Federal Trade Commission to resist calls to ban online behavioural targeting, arguing data-driven advertising benefits consumers as well as advertisers.

US ad industry urges FTC to resist calls to ban online behavioural targeting
Photograph: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

In written comments made to the FTC, it said: “Consumers receive virtually free access to massive amounts of information online in large part due to the ad-subsidised internet. Additionally, thanks to data-driven advertising, consumers are presented with advertisements and messaging that is tailored to them, thereby benefiting consumers by giving them information that is useful and maximising efficiency in businesses’ interactions with their existing and prospective customers.”

Other organizations, such as the Electronic Information Privacy Center and Consumer Reports, urged the FTC to crack down on such practices.

“Unfair data collection practices and surveillance have eroded consumer privacy, and this unwanted observation constitutes substantial injury to consumers,” those two organizations contended.

The comments come in response to a petition filed last year by privacy watchdog Accountable Tech, urging the agency to ban “surveillance advertising.”

Accountable Tech described the “three distinct but interlocking” types of conduct that constitute surveillance advertising. These are the “unfair extraction and monetization of data by dominant firms,” the “integration of data across business lines,” and “exclusive dealing.”

They explained that it involves collecting data about consumers and then serving them ads across web pages based on that data. This data is linked to their personal information, including their browsing history.

Responding to the petition, groups such as the ANA argue that a ban on surveillance advertising might force companies to shift to a subscription-based model due to revenue losses.

“An increase in subscription-based services would change the egalitarian nature of the Internet, with consumers of means able to access cutting edge content and services while consumers with less expendable income would not be able to access such information,” the ANA said.

The ANA also added that a ban was unnecessary because the industry’s self-regulatory program allows consumers to opt out of ads served to them based on their personal data.

“Consumers are empowered to take action to stop the practice if they do not want to allow companies to use data associated with them to present them with relevant content and advertisements,” the group said. “No concrete harms have been presented by the petition that counterweigh the benefits consumers receive.”

This view is not shared, however, by watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Center for Digital Democracy.

“Amnesty International considers current targeted advertising practices that rely on indiscriminate corporate surveillance and profiling - including surveillance advertising - to be inherently incompatible with human rights,” the global rights organization said.

“The scale of the data collected by Google and Facebook means that these companies are amassing more information on human beings and human activity than previously imaginable,” Amnesty International added.

“The aggregation of so much data, combined with the use of sophisticated data analysis tools, can reveal very intimate and detailed information; in effect, the companies can know virtually everything about an individual.”

Privacy watchdog Center for Digital Democracy criticized the FTC for failing to investigate the issue earlier, having first urged the agency to investigate data mining and online behavioural targeting back in 2006.

“The systemic and multiple failures of the FTC over the decades to respond meaningfully to the role and nature of online marketing - which has eviscerated the privacy rights of Americans (and consumers worldwide) - have enabled data-driven surveillance to thrive ubiquitously,” it said.

“Nearly every platform, application, device and experience in which Americans engage has been shaped by the commercial spying and manipulation apparatus that the commission has allowed to evolve and expand without constraint.”

Consumer Reports and the Electronic Privacy Information Center argued that the “tracking implemented by platforms like Google and Facebook is not technically necessary to rendering services, and it assaults long-held norms surrounding privacy.”

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