Democratic Lawmakers Call for Ban of Surveillance Advertising

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Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Anna Eshoo asked the Federal Trade Commission to consider prohibiting targeted advertising through personal user data.

 Democratic lawmakers Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., penned a letter to the Federal Trade Commission requesting that the agency place limitations on surveillance advertising across digital platforms. 

Surveillance advertising is the practice of using users’ personal data, sometimes called ‘cookies,’ to inform what advertisements are deployed to unique users. Using these targeted techniques has become a staple in online advertising, with paid advertisements offering a source of revenue to hosting websites. 

“The surveillance advertising business model is premised on the unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting,” the letter reads. “Companies collect huge amounts of data to maximize user engagement because it increases ad revenue.”

Booker and Eshoo also pointed out the use of targeted advertisements as a way foreign entities or adversaries can collect Americans’ data. The lawmakers reference tracking data and targeted ads promoting misinformation as two areas of concern.

“These harms are not justified by the benefit of ad revenue to the companies,” the letter said. It then pivots into supporting the Petition for Rulemaking by Accountable Tech, a petition sent to the FTC that requests more regulations to ban surveillance advertising. 

The letter follows a bill introduced on Jan. 18 by Booker and Eshoo that would outlaw surveillance advertising, called the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act. The pending legislation would formally outlaw the practice, notably prohibiting advertisers from using personal user data related to sensitive information like race, gender or religion. 

“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,” Eshoo said in the press release. 

Booker and Eshoo noted that contextual advertising, which matches ad content with the content on its host site, is still allowable in their bill.