Ban surveillance advertising? In this economy?
4 min read

Ban surveillance advertising? In this economy?

A recently proposed bill could upend the internet. It could also be key to fixing it.
Ban surveillance advertising? In this economy?

A song to read by: "Superstar," by Carpenters

What I’m reading: "Braiding Sweetgrass," by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Surveil and delight

Last week, lawmakers Anna G. Eshoo, Jan Schakowsky and Cory Booker introduced a piece of legislation so incendiary that the industry at large hardly knew how to react. Called the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act, the proposed bill would make it illegal for the facilitators of digital advertising — think Google and Meta, but there are dozens of other big players — to use targeted ads.

The audacity of the legislation is hard to overstate: The modern internet runs on targeted ads. In fact, at this point, saying “targeted ad” is essentially redundant — if you encounter an ad on the internet, rest assured that whatever served it to you has done everything in its power to make it as targeted as possible.

In an era where legislators hem and haw over the minutiae of user privacy, this represents a quantum leap forward — or, from a technological perspective, backward. It takes the internet back to the stone age, reducing the precision of ads to essentially the pre-digital days.

Back then, before browsers tracked your every move and websites registered your every scroll, marketers had to rely on what we now call “contextual advertising.” The number of syllables in the term belies its simplicity: contextual advertising means showing an ad for a sporting goods store on a website for basketball enthusiasts or the latest culinary gizmo in a gourmet magazine.

To modern marketers, returning to an era of contextual advertising would be akin to operating blind. Compared to the kind of granularity they have come to expect and rely on — targeting by age, gender, interest, browsing history and a litany of other characteristics — contextual advertising seems to function on little more than a wish and a prayer.

To be clear, if the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act passed in its current form, the internet as we know it would likely collapse — and quickly.

For reference, Google’s decision to remove third-party cookies from its browser — a tiny, qualified, measured reduction in the visibility available to marketers — has so terrorized the industry that the company warned of its decision literally years in advance and marketers are still scrambling to prepare. It has been compared to Y2K.

If the industry is so overwhelmed by a tiny modification to one way that one browser allows some people to collect some information, imagine what would happen if all identifying information across the internet disappeared. Removing third-party cookies is like a diet that cuts out sweets, while removing ad targeting would be like a diet that cuts out carbon.

Implausible, yet curious

Clearly, the industry has reassured itself, this kind of legislation is a symbolic shot across the bow, a suggestion so wildly impractical that its real purpose could only be political. It has to be — it would gut the web of its financial engine.

For the most part, I am inclined to agree with them. But even if it is not meant to be applied practically, the bill still represents a major milestone in discussions of user privacy and the ad-funded internet.

It is a massive shift of the Overton window, a bold first position in an ongoing bargain. It has a precision of target unusual for D.C. legislation, in that it goes straight to the root of the problem rather than trying to prune its branches.

Unlike other tech-policy debates dominating D.C. halls, the BSAA is not about asking the platforms to moderate hate speech or share how their algorithms work — this follows the money.

It says that all the problems afflicting the internet stem from its monetization model, which incentivizes businesses to collect information about users so they can increase the likelihood of serving them a relevant ad. If the internet had a creation story, the BSAA thinks that ad targeting is its original sin.

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

While I think that this legislation would do more harm than good if enacted in its current language, it invites questions that should have been raised 20 years ago. Rather than “How should we regulate data collection and ad targeting?” it asks “Should we be collecting user information at all?”

The decisions about the shape and state of the internet have too often been made by those who stand to benefit from it financially. As a thought experiment, put aside the economics of the web and imagine a world where the internet was unable to track its visitors. Would it be better or worse? And how would that shape the world beyond the web?

The question has implications that run deep, but they feel appropriate for the moment. Nostalgia for a simpler internet is rising, from the return of newsletters and Wordle to the Tumblr renaissance. There is a growing sense that, at some point along the way, the internet took a wrong turn. Maybe this legislation helps illuminate where it went astray.

Some good readin'

— I profiled Gus Wenner, the son of Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner, who was recently named CEO of the publisher. (Adweek)

— A really great piece about the some of the shortcomings of the non-profit model. I had not thought about it from this angle! (Politico)

— Speaking of platforms grappling with moderation ... it's Spotify's turn! (Platformer)

— From Terry: an insightful piece on the vulnerability of trusting the internet to archive our memories. (Gen Yeet)

— Just an absolutely brutal story and a New York Magazine classic: there are pulverized limos, Pakistani dissidents and an aspiring professional paintballer. (New York Magazine)

— Another New York Magazine classic: the efforts of a Tinder cofounder who thinks he was screwed out of a couple hundred million dollars. No app has a more drama-laden backstory. (New York Magazine)

Cover image: "The False Mirror, René Magritte