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Europe has tried to police privacy online with mixed results. Now a growing movement suggests it’s time to go much further — by imposing an all-out ban on the microtargeting practices at the heart of Google and Facebook’s business models.
The European Union set a global precedent in 2018 when it imposed the General Data Protection Regulation, a privacy rulebook that established control over data as a “fundamental right” for individuals and threatened fines of up to 4 percent of annual turnover for any company that fell afoul.
But three years on, the GDPR has yet to make full use of its sanctioning power or, critics argue, impose profound changes on the operating model of tech juggernauts. In the absence of change, a group of European lawmakers, policymakers, regulators and activists — backed by civil society allies in the United States — now says it’s time to finish the job by banning the practices that allow advertisers and political parties to track individuals with tailored messages as they move around the web.
In other words — that Halloween costume that’s been following you around the web since last October may become a thing of the past.
“This can’t be a business model in a free society,” said Alexandra Geese, a German member of the Greens group in the European Parliament who, along with fellow lawmaker Paul Tang, is at the forefront of a campaign to stop online microtargeting.
It’s a radical notion to say the least. Microtargeting — in which advertisers use hyper-detailed data profiles to target individuals with paid-for messages — isn’t just a pillar of Silicon Valley’s business model that underpins the empires of Google, Facebook and Amazon. It’s also widely employed by traditional media organizations which, despite their scrutiny of Silicon Valley, have embraced targeted advertising as a way of supplanting income lost amid the digital giants’ rise.
But microtargeting has also been at the heart of the digital world’s most egregious scandals of the past decade, from the Cambridge Analytica data leak unveiled in 2018 to a massive leak of private information on 533 million Facebook users revealed this past weekend.
The ensuing global collapse in public support for Big Tech has prompted companies like Google and, most notably, Apple, to embrace a privacy-first message in public that promises to limit the effects of microtargeting, if not to eliminate it altogether.
Proponents of a ban say that won’t go far enough. Because microtargeting divides and segments humanity into one-person interest groups, they argue, it poses a “threat for a free liberal democracy,” according to Geese.
And while the key proponents of a ban — Green and left-wing lawmakers in the European Parliament and their allies — face a high hurdle to get their proposal written into EU laws, they’ve picked up crucial support from a top privacy, regulator, members of the EU’s executive arm and civil society groups.
In October, a majority in the European Parliament backed a call to rein in online tracking for ads. Now the plan is to pencil a ban into the European Union’s flagship online content bill, the Digital Services Act, currently snaking its way through the legislative process.
Last month, the head of cabinet to the European justice commissioner voiced tentative support for a ban on microtargeting. “Prohibiting certain practices like microtargeting at certain times” is a “debate that needs to be had,” Renate Nikolay told an event in early March.
Remember the GDPR?
Three years after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, trust in the technology sector is still in free fall, hitting all-time lows around the world last year, according to a global survey by Edelman. And pressure to rein in Big Tech via regulation is growing from Sydney to Brussels and Washington.
And then there’s the question of how well they actually work. When Dutch broadcaster NPO decided last year to abandon tracking users and switch to ads based on context alone, it found that advertising revenue actually grew. “The system is rife with fraud,” said Johnny Ryan, a senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. “Any sensible person in the industry will admit that there is a lot of skepticism about digital advertising.”
Even so, such examples remain the exception. Much of the online world, including publishers, remains hooked on ad tracking, whose advocates raise a troubling point: Doesn’t Europe already have far-reaching privacy guarantees via the General Data Protection Regulation?
Indeed, three years after the GDPR came online, regulators have yet to deal any knockout blows to Big Tech over privacy infringements. And despite major lawsuits targeting the fiendishly complex auction system for online ads, known as Real-Time Bidding, no probe has yet come close to completion.
“We don’t need a ban on targeted advertising,” said a high-level adtech executive who asked not to be named. “We need the GDPR to be enforced. There is a sickening lack of enforcement of the GDPR.”
Europe’s Data Protection Supervisor begs to differ. Rather than a silver bullet against all privacy infringements, the GDPR is “setting the general environment in which data protection operates in the EU,” Wojciech Wiewiórowski told POLITICO.
He argued the best way to address the societal impact of technology is via the Digital Services Act, which was unveiled in December. “It can intervene directly where the problem lies,” added Wiewiórowski, urging lawmakers to consider whether “we really want this kind of reuse of data collected on the internet for targeted advertising.”
Even without a ban, there are signs that widespread microtargeting may be drawing to a close, thanks in part to action by the tech giants themselves.
Last summer, Apple unveiled plans to tell iPhone users what kind of data their apps were gathering on them and an easy option to opt out.
Google is trialing an update to its popular Chrome browser that would phase out third-party cookies — bits of code that allow advertisers to know where you’ve been and how best to target you. (Facebook and Amazon, the two biggest adtech players besides Google, have not announced plans to limit data collection.)
Critics are quick point out that these moves by Apple and Google aren’t anything like what Geese and her allies are calling for. Both companies will continue to gather data on users and use it to sell targeted ads; they just won’t allow third parties to do so on their platforms.
The result, according to antitrust lawsuits filed against both firms in France and Texas, is that both companies will become even more dominant by walling off their section of the internet to outside vendors. Critics say these amount to Big Tech using privacy as an excuse to bolster their market position while getting ahead of potential regulation.
But for average web users, the bottom line is that privacy — and the promise that your data may not be sold to any vendor looking to hawk a Halloween costume — is on the rise.
“What is near to the end is the era of unsanctioned Wild West of tracking,” said Olejnik.
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