Had you been choosing where to go on vacation this year and since then, advertisement for the best vacation—whether in Europe or overseas—was popping up at you during every action on-line? That happens due to so-called targeted, surveillance advertising. Its advertisers and intermediaries know everything about you. How old you are, where you live, what your hobbies are, what pages you’re browsing, and also that you are planning your vacation. I consider widespread on-line surveillance unacceptable.
How does it work?
Advertisers can target everyone, whether by age, gender, place of residence, our interests, or other parameters. They know how long we were looking at a post, what we clicked on, and what we didn’t like.
It is targeted advertising that is becoming more and more popular. It’s more effective, and the return of investment is greater than for non-targeted advertising. Thanks to so-called behavioural targeting, platforms have all information you have shared with them. Which posts you liked, purchase and search history, technical information about your access to the website such as the manufacturer of your device or operating system and your IP address. Everything is then connected to a unique user. Revenue from targeted advertising in Europe is estimated at EUR 21.4 billion in 2020.
Why is it a problem?
We may like that we could see an ad that is relevant for us. However, precise targeting is redeemed by our privacy. The problem is in the amount of data that these tech giants collect about us. They track our every click. Surveillance advertising not only violates our privacy, but also leads to manipulation and discrimination. Let’s take it point by point:
- Invasion of privacy: It is practically impossible to find out what data is collected about us and who subsequently uses it. Targeted advertising should be more transparent so that users know what advertising is being targeted or who is behind it, but also advertising based on abuse of personal data should be banned.
- Dissemination of disinformation: The lack of transparency about where ads are displayed and who behind their funding is leads to the mass spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories. In today’s digital age, disinformation—which is in addition displayed for example only to a certain group of users and thus serves to manipulate them—is an increasing problem.
- Promoting discrimination: From two perspectives. Lack of transparency where ads appear supports and funds websites that distribute false content. Another aspect of the problem is discrimination in certain sectors, when advertising is only displayed to certain ethnic groups, for example. Users can be excluded on the basis of their income, gender, skin color, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, political opinion, or based on the fact that some consumers simply pay more for products or services than others. For example, in 2016, ProPublica found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude black and Hispanic people and other ethnic minorities from displaying advertisements for real estate sales. There were also situations where job offers were focused only on a certain gender or age range.
- User manipulation: Advertisers who have extensive and confidential knowledge about us can tailor their messages to reach us at the right time and in the right way.
- Unfair competition: The chain of intermediaries on the advertising market is complicated and your personal data is in possession of many companies. On the other hand, some links in this chain include only a few dominant players in the market. This may lead to a greater advantage for them which may have an anti-competitive effect. For example, in October 2020, Google was responsible for nearly 90% of global desktop search traffic.
What is the solution?
Europe has already done a lot to avoid surveillance. For example, all websites that target the European market must give you the option to reject tracking cookies. However, you cannot completely avoid tracking. Systemic change and the correct setting of legislative rules that helps users is necesssary.
In the European Parliament, I work on both the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. These legislative acts should help the return of our privacy, the protection of personal data, and fix the distortion that we can observe on the market.