Democrats propose a law to ban "surveillance advertising"

The bill would put a stop to targeted advertising, which brings in loads of cash for Google, Facebook and other data brokers.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Three Democratic members of Congress on Tuesday introduced new legislation to ban "surveillance advertising" -- the use of personal data for targeted advertising. The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act would upend business for Facebook, Google DoubleClick and other companies that facilitate personalized advertising. 

Reps. Anna Eshoo of California and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois introduced the bill in the US House of Representatives, while Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced it in the Senate. 

It expressly prohibits advertising based on personal information -- defined as data linked or reasonably linkable to an individual or connected device, including inferred and derived data, contents of communications, internet browsing history, and advertising identifiers. It also prohibits advertisers from targeting ads based on protected class information (such as race or religion) and any information they purchase. 

The bill does make an exception for broad location targeting to a recognized place such as a city. It also allows contextual advertising -- ads based on a user's current content. A summary of the legislation cites research from 2019 showing that targeted ads only yield a 4% bump in efficacy for advertisers over contextual ads. 

In a statement, Eshoo -- who represents a large portion of Silicon Valley -- called targeted advertising a "toxic business model that causes irreparable harm to consumers, businesses, and our democracy.

"The 'surveillance advertising' business model is premised on the unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting," she said. "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."

Schakowsky suggested in a statement that the legislation could eventually be folded into a more comprehensive consumer data privacy bill. 

"I look forward to continued discussion with Energy and Commerce Members on both sides of the aisle in order to achieve this outcome," she said. 

If the law passed, the US Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general would be authorized to enforce it. Violators could also face private lawsuits.

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