Dozens of Key Stakeholders Formally Urge FTC to Ban Surveillance Advertising

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Leading Advocacy Groups, Businesses, Experts, and Lawmakers Submit Comments in Support of Accountable Tech Rulemaking Petition

As the public comment period for Accountable Tech’s petition to ban surveillance advertising came to a close on Wednesday night, the FTC received dozens of submissions from a diverse cross-section of leading advocacy organizations, businesses, lawmakers, and experts – along with more than 2,000 grassroots supporters – urging the Commission to promulgate new rules to prohibit this unfair method of competition.

The breadth of arguments made in support of initiating this rulemaking, which correlate with the unique perspective that each stakeholder in this unlikely cohort brings to the table, reflects the wide-ranging societal harms of this business model. As the former head of Google’s $115 billion ad division said in his submission, “surveillance advertising is the underlying cancer plaguing the entire system. And it’s long past time to rein it in.”

“We’re truly blown away by how many of our partners from across disparate sections of the advocacy world – not to mention ethical tech companies, members of Congress, and more – filed compelling substantive comments in short order to advance this ambitious proposal,” said Accountable Tech executive director, Nicole Gill. “It’s remarkable how far the Overton window has moved,” added co-founder, Jesse Lehrich. “Even a year ago, when we started talking about banning surveillance advertising, it seemed radical. Now, the debate is not over how crazy it is to take direct aim at Big Tech’s toxic business model, but rather over the best and most expedient path to defang it.”

The deluge of support for this petition furthers the growing momentum after Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the landmark Banning Surveillance Advertising Act and the European Parliament adopted amendments to significantly curtail ad targeting before approving the Digital Services Act last week. 

 

Below is a list of key stakeholders who submitted comments to the FTC in support of banning surveillance advertising, followed by select quotes from their filings. The full submissions from these commenters are accessible HERE, as some have not yet been posted to the public docket:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics 
  • Amnesty International
  • Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA)
  • ADL (Anti-Defamation League)
  • Center for Digital Democracy
  • Center for Humane Technology
  • Common Sense
  • Consumer Federation of America
  • Consumer Reports and EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) 
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
  • Demand Progress Education Fund
  • DuckDuckGo
  • European Digital Rights (EDRi)
  • Exposure Labs (Creators of the Social Dilemma)
  • Fairplay
  • Fight for the Future
  • Neeva
  • Parents Coalition for Student Privacy
  • ParentsTogether
  • Proton
  • Public Citizen
  • Public Knowledge
  • Ranking Digital Rights
  • Reset
  • Rishi Bharwani
  • SumOfUs
  • Tech Transparency Project
  • Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue
  • Ultraviolet

“Surveillance advertising has been called the Internet’s Original Sin and a ‘time bomb at the heart of the Internet’ that could harm society on the scale of the subprime mortgage crisis. The surveillance advertising business model is premised on the unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting. Companies collect huge amounts of data to maximize user engagement because it increases ad revenue. The FTC should evaluate the harms to society and individuals as we believe they vastly outweigh the benefits.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) & Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

“It has become increasingly clear from experience that the current digital ecosystem is not  developmentally appropriate, nor is it working for families. Pediatricians counsel an approach  to digital media that centers moderation in device use, high-quality content, and active  engagement from users. However, families face huge headwinds using technology platforms  designed to maximize profit and user engagement, goals at odds with a developmentally  appropriate approach to technology. This business model, which depends on the collection and  monetization of vast quantities of data from children, adolescents, and their parents to inform  commercial goals, is undergirded by data-driven behavioral advertising.”

— American Academy of Pediatrics

“Put simply, surveillance on such a scale represents an unprecedented interference with the right to privacy that cannot be compatible with the companies’ responsibility to respect human rights. This goes beyond an intrusion into every aspect of our lives online, and in fact threatens our right to shape and define who we are as autonomous individuals in society. The harms to human rights of surveillance advertising do not stop at the right to privacy. It has long been recognized that the right to privacy acts as an enabler to other human rights. In this context, if privacy is harmed, this has a range of knock-on impacts and chilling effects on other human rights.”

— Amnesty International

“Contrary to what most people think, the biggest challenge to competing in search with a company like Google is not engineering, innovation, or capital but rather fair and equitable access to consumers/the market… Regulation that is properly tailored and focused on ridding the system of its lifeblood — surveillance advertising — as well as gatekeeping abuses has a constructive and important role to play and will unleash a new era of innovation. I have been on both sides and know this to be true.”

— Sridhar Ramaswamy, Neeva Founder & CEO, Former Head of Google Ads

“Consumers are clearly unhappy with how their data are being treated…Furthermore, the benefits of surveillance advertising do not outweigh the harms, since relevant ads can be delivered to consumers in a much less privacy-intrusive manner through contextual advertising. CFA has endorsed the recently-introduced Banning Surveillance Advertising Act, but in light of the fact that many other privacy bills are languishing in Congress with no movement, the chances of its enactment are uncertain. The FTC is better positioned to act.”

— Consumer Federation of America

“Social media companies make money by surveilling our behavior, collecting our data, and tweaking their algorithms to recommend content that will keep users online for as long as possible—so they can specifically target those users with as many advertisements as possible. Under this business model, hate, violence, and misinformation thrive because it’s the type of content that gets engagement.  The surveillance advertising business encourages social media companies to profit from people’s propensity for clicking on incendiary content and sharing misinformation. ADL urges the FTC to take seriously the threat surveillance advertising poses on normalizing hate and extremism.”

— ADL (Anti-Defamation League)

“Children and teens’ online experiences are shaped by the affordances of surveillance marketing, which entrap them in a complex system purposefully designed to manipulate their behaviors and emotions, while leveraging their data in the process… The harm behavioral advertising inflicts on vulnerable kids and teens, coupled with how prominent and unavoidable this type of invasive advertising has become, necessitates banning the practice. We urge the Commission to move forward with a rulemaking to ban behavioral advertising in the interests of children, teens, and the general public.”

— Fairplay, Common Sense, Center for Digital Democracy, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy & ParentsTogether 

“As a privacy technology company, DuckDuckGo supports the passage of a strong federal privacy law. In the absence of action on this important issue in Congress, the FTC must act to protect individuals and competition by passing rules on surveillance advertising. For too long, consumers have lacked sufficient protections for their private data. Companies have suffered privacy invasions too, with dominant tech companies abusing their gatekeeper status to collect non-public data about rivals and then exploit that information to their benefit.”

— DuckDuckGo

“Given companies’ strong incentives to continue to freely collect data, self-regulation has not been and will never be sufficient to protect consumers against these harms. And with the ever-growing sophistication of technology, without policy intervention, unwanted, unexpected, and ultimately disadvantageous (to individuals) surveillance will only become more widespread.”

— Consumer Reports and EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center)

“A ban on Surveillance Advertising is one of few levers that can move the technology landscape.  Many mechanisms have been proposed for reining in a largely unregulated technology sector, from Section 230 reform to stronger protections for young people. None would be as effective as shifting a fundamental incentive that drives the industry. Legislation or rulemaking that addresses individual harms created by technology platforms—from disinformation to mental health—will be easily evaded by platforms’ rapid iterations in product engineering and advances in machine learning. We are at a precipice that requires more sweeping, root-level changes like shifting incentives, which FTC-2021-0070 does.”

— Center for Humane Technology

Surveillance advertising by any company is pernicious, for all of the privacy-related reasons discussed above. But surveillance advertising by Big Tech companies in particular – which have become increasingly dominant in this space, also poses serious threats to competition policy. Big Tech companies like Google and Apple have incomparably vast troves of user data, including communications, social connections, search data, location information, purchase and browsing histories, biometrics, and even health data. These datasets are integrated across platforms to allow Big Tech companies to engage in unparallelled analysis and granular marketing that no other companies can compete with.”

— Demand Progress Education Fund

“Surveillance advertising is a dangerous and unfair method of competition that causes far-reaching societal harm, especially for women, girls, members of the LGBTQ community, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), who have been historically marginalized and targeted both on- and offline. As a gender and survivor justice organization committed to an intersectional, feminist, and anti-racist future, UltraViolet is concerned about the potential damage caused by under-regulation of Big Tech, and particularly the ways in which Big Tech can abuse its power through surveillance advertising.” 

UltraViolet

“Surveillance advertising is harmful to users, distorts the effective functioning of the technology sector (as evidenced in Accountable Tech’s petition), and threatens democracy itself. While regulation short of a full ban, as has been proposed in the EU’s Digital Services Act, would be preferable to the status quo, we believe that only a full ban on surveillance advertising will protect consumers, eliminate perverse incentive structures for very large online platforms, and correct market failures in the online advertising industry.”  

Ranking Digital Rights

“Arguments against a proper interpretation of the Commission’s UMC rulemaking authority lack merit… As noted in Accountable Tech’s petition, surveillance advertising causes serious harm to both the market and individuals. The Commission’s dual role as both a competition agency and a consumer protection agency make it the ideal administrative body to promulgate rules to curb abusive practices by the online advertising ecosystem.”

— Public Knowledge

“The major social media platforms make their money by tracking and profiling people based on their behavior, relationships, sexual orientation, political leanings, and identity; and then leverage these insights to auction us off to the highest advertising bidder. This practice has not only allowed them to suppress their competitors and make them some of the richest companies in the history of the world, but it is degrading the very fabric of our society.”

— Exposure Labs (Creators of the Social Dilemma)

“The structure of the surveillance advertising industry poses the risk of substantial harm to individuals, acting against the fundamental right to privacy, increasing the risks to protection and security of personal data due to the volume of data processed, and facilitating a rise in manipulation, discrimination, disinformation, radicalization, and fraud. Any potential commercial benefits of surveillance advertising pale compared to the sheer volume of harm.” 

Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue

“For 50 years, Public Citizen has defended consumers’ right to engage in our economy and our society without being exploited for corporate profit. In the current age, the surveillance advertising business model is a perfect example of a practice that extracts an unjustifiable price consumers have no choice but to pay in order to conduct their day to day lives.”

Public Citizen

“Beyond preventing new competitors, this anti-competitive advantage leads to product degradation by allowing digital ad platforms to ignore widespread criticism with the knowledge that their customers have no other option but to continue advertising on their platforms…The existence of surveillance advertising also forces small business owners into an ethical quandary, forcing a choice between rejecting the practice and their businesses’ potential financial gains…Ending this practice would also open the door for traditional advertising businesses to reemerge in the marketplace. Contextual advertisements, which once allowed a wide-range of niche publication businesses to keep the lights on, could once again find prominence.” 

— Tech Transparency Project

“In addition to hurting competition, surveillance advertising also degrades consumers. The entire practice hinges on collecting sweeping amounts of personal information, ranging from contacts and messages all the way to anxieties and beliefs. Big Tech will say that users agreed to this tracking in its terms and conditions, but those terms are so needlessly confusing that they verge on deception. We also know that there have been instances where companies outrightly lie about what they do or did with personal data. The remedy for this crisis is not deferring to the honor system. It’s issuing commonsense regulations that put consumers first.”

— Andy Yen, Proton Founder & CEO

“Facebook’s surveillance advertising business model has evolved into social engineering via psychological warfare. Despite internal and external research consistently demonstrating the consequences of the platform’s data-fueled surveillance advertising, its executives refuse to change. In order to address the harm caused by Facebook and other platforms, the FTC must ban surveillance advertising.”

— Fight for the Future

“Every day brings advances in the capabilities of commercial surveillance, led by the giant entities that dominate the marketplace, along with their affiliates… We urge the commission to act on this petition, as well as calls by civil rights, consumer and privacy groups that it engage in a comprehensive rulemaking that will help promote competition, data protection, fairness and civil rights online.”

— Center for Digital Democracy

“[This petition] provides the Commission with an important opportunity to utilize its broad Section 5 authority to adopt rules that classify harmful conduct associated with surveillance advertising has unlawful unfair methods of competition.  Given the significant  harms to society that result from this business model, it is a matter of great urgency that the Commission promptly initiates a rulemaking proceeding on this issue.”

— Reset

“Our community is deeply concerned with Big Tech’s practice of tracking and profiling people, and then using their data to micro-target based on their behavior, relationships and identity. This harmful business model is leading to the manipulation of billions of people – forcing them into rabbit holes and echo chambers of disinformation and conspiracy theories…. With so much at stake, we absolutely cannot afford to sit back and watch how these harmful business practices unfold. We already have the proof, now it’s time to act.”

— SumOfUs

“Banning surveillance advertising, implementing strong privacy and data protection rules, transparency and a legally-binding, human-rights based approach will ensure that social media and AdTech companies can be held accountable for the way they shape our online environment. While the European Union is trying to lead the charge with its new Digital Services Act and Digital Market Act proposals, it is U.S. regulators and legislators who can be pioneering this kind of regulation of an industry largely based in the United States.”

— European Digital Rights (EDRi)

“We can no longer afford to plead with corporations that put profits ahead of people. We need to take swift action and reset the incentive structure to prevent monopolists from profiting off of conduct that sows violence, accellerates discrimination, and undermines competition and democracy alike. I urge the FTC to fulfill its moral and statutory obligations to stem these harms by promulgating a rule to prohibit surveillance advertising.”

— Rishi Bharwani

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