House Bills Seek to Stop Political Ad Microtargeting

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A pair of bills seek to limit how political campaigns can use data to reach voters.

Months away from the next presidential election, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., introduced new pieces of legislation this week that would keep America’s top tech platforms and streaming services from narrowly targeting political ads based on users’ demographic, purchasing or behavioral data.

Microtargeting allows marketers to tailor their campaigns to specific, segmented groups of people based on their social media connections, demographics, recent purchases and other data online platforms collect. Eshoo on Tuesday unveiled the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act, which would apply to all electioneering communications and advocacy for candidates and ultimately seeks to stop politics-driven microtargeting. 

“Microtargeting political ads fractures our open democratic debate into millions of private, unchecked silos, allowing for the spread of false promises, polarizing lies, disinformation, fake news, and voter suppression,” Eshoo said in a statement. “With spending on digital ads in the 2020 election expected to exceed $1.3 billion, Congress must step in to protect our nation’s democratic process.”Tapping into the advertising strategy for political purposes has become increasingly scrutinized in the recent past, particularly as increasingly more data is used regarding individuals who have little knowledge that it’s even being collected—and concerns about it were further amplified following the 2016 presidential election, as more and more details emerged about Russian-led, targeted disinformation campaigns. In her announcement regarding the new bill, Eshoo highlights a recent Knight-Gallup poll that suggests, now, a majority of Americans—69% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans—“oppose the use of personal information for microtargeting political ads.”

Eshoo’s bill specifically aims to “prohibit online platforms from disseminating political advertisements which are targeted to an individual or to a group of individuals on any basis other than the recognized place in which the individual or group resides,”—meaning targeting users from location-based data or users who opt-in to receiving the targeted campaign ads would still fly. If passed, anyone who thinks they may have been illegally targeted may file suit in court.

More than a dozen experts and advocacy groups expressed support of the legislation. 

“The microtargeting of political ads undermines the basic tenets of a healthy democracy. As we retreat deeper into our curated filter bubbles, discerning fact from fiction is extremely difficult, fueling pernicious polarization. Microtargeting also disparately impacts marginalized people, exemplified by the discriminatory voter suppression messaging in the 2016 presidential election,” U.S. Policy Manager at Access Now Eric Null said in a statement. “This bill is a welcome step in the right to direction to address what ails the U.S. political system.”

But the legislative focus on halting political microtargeting doesn’t stop with Eshoo.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., indicated last week that he, too, aimed to unveil legislation to help curb the practice during election season. Cicilline’s bill, also introduced Tuesday, would allow advertisers and online platforms to use only age, gender and location in their political ad-targeting efforts. 

His legislation also requires disclosure and reporting regarding who paid for the ads, how much they cost, who the audience reached is meant to be, and who ultimately saw the ad. Under the bill, violators may face lawsuits and criminal penalties. 

“Microtargeting is a threat to our democracy. Campaigns and foreign actors can use this technology to manipulate voters with high volumes of misleading information that is virtually impossible to keep track of,” Cicilline said in a statement. “The American people should choose their leaders, not sophisticated data firms or foreign adversaries that have their own agendas.”

Upon introduction, both bills were referred to the House Committee on House Administration.

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