Want To Solve Surveillance Advertising? Invite Consumers to the Table 


Everyone knows we need better, more effective advertising. It’s often intrusive and unwelcome, poses ever-increasing privacy concerns, and is an all-around bad experience and a bad deal for most consumers. Platforms and politicians are searching for fixes, but it often amounts to tugging at a Gordian knot. 

Apple introduced new privacy controls in iOS 14.5 that ask users for permission before apps can monitor and share the kind of personal data used to target ads. Google is following in Apple’s footsteps with proposed changes to the Android operating system to add new privacy options without entirely closing the spigot of advertising revenue for developers. 

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Politicians are also offering their take on how to undo the knot, most recently with the proposed Banning Surveillance Advertising ActOpens a new window . The bill claims to prohibit surveillance / targeted advertising based on personal information, allowing exceptions only for location-based and contextual ads. 

I hope we can all agree Americans shouldn’t be surveilled (not even by the NSA), but this effort is rife with loopholes and blind spots. Nowhere in the proposed legislation does it say technology companies have to erase everything they already know about consumers and start from scratch, for example. It just shuts the door to more collection of personally identifiable information (PII). It offers the appearance of taking action, while companies like Google and Facebook, which have decades of data about us and our movement patterns and media consumption habits, have an advantage that smaller or newer companies don’t and won’t ever have. Several years’ worth of each person’s unique behavior, already cataloged and linked to curated first and third-party data, supplemented by AI, provides the incumbents with individual behavioral DNA that will serve as a proxy for a known person in the next wave of “contextual-only” advertising.

Every technologist should also be asking questions about who is behind this bill and what their motivations are. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and other voices in the adtech and digital ad industry have come out against the billOpens a new window , which isn’t surprising; at least their motives are unabashedly clear. If this bill was truly about limiting and getting rid of surveillance, shouldn’t everyone be more than happy to rid the world of this scourge?

All these efforts fall short because they draw us into untangling the Gordian knot of problematic advertising. Technology is supposed to serve humanity as a tool that makes our lives easier, but it’s a double-edged sword that can just as easily be wielded for harm. Some of these efforts might loosen a thread in the knot here or there but ignore the actual problem. While tech companies and politicians (often captives to their technology donors) are busy debating how technology works and should work and how that empowers or disrupts platforms, brands, and agencies, we’re distracted from the big picture.  

Invite Consumers to the Table

If we want to slice through the Gordian knot, we need to gather the representative stakeholders — brands and agencies, the tech platforms, mass media sellers, and, yes, consumers — to lay out a set of rules that are mutually beneficial for all. What does each stakeholder love and hate about advertising in its current form? What has been done for years that should end? What would make the experience more valuable to every stakeholder? 

We need something akin to the joint industry committees (JICs) common in Europe, especially around audience measurement. They’re neutral, nonprofit organizations where all stakeholders are represented — typically, brands, agencies, and media owners.

Unlike most JICs, media and tech platforms, brands and agencies should welcome consumers to the table. They deserve a seat, and they deserve options. Some consumers will surely want to opt-out of any surveillance at all. Others might be willing to trade their PII and psychographics for proper rewards and protections.

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Why surrender that control to Congress (and the masked lobbyists and bill ghostwriters) or the FTC through this bill or any other? Why should massive tech companies arbitrate on their own what consumers do or don’t want? 

With a consumer-represented JIC, all stakeholders can come together and craft rules of play around the value and values of advertising, the role of technology and media in coordinating brand exposure, and the exchange of value for consumers. Let’s come up with the ten commandments of how to advertise that are driven and shaped by the open marketplace. Strip away all the political posturing and playbills and have the stakeholders themselves develop the guidelines and the penalties for violating them. 

Technology is not the enemy. It’s a tool. And it has long been used as a weapon of surveillance hiding under the auspices of “serving better and more relevant ads.” But with the right guidelines in place, technology can help the ad industry prosper, with integrity and consumer-centric safeguards firmly in place.

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