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It's time to ban surveillance advertising


by Oliver Hayes,  

Policy and Campaigns Lead 

4 min read



Global Action Plan publishes new research with New Economics Foundation, launching the report I-Spy: The billion-dollar business of surveillance advertising to kids


Much has been written about the pros and cons of our increasingly screen-heavy existence, but there’s no doubting who the big winners are. For Google, Facebook and the other tech giants, more screen time means one thing: more ad revenue.


Underpinning our doom-scrolling is the availability of data – our data – that feeds content recommendation algorithms and micro-targeted ads.


Most of what we see online – search results, news feeds, videos and adverts – is influenced by data held about us by companies no-one’s heard of. The more that’s gleaned from that data – what we yearn for, who we aspire to be, what our peers are looking at – the easier we can be kept online and the more persuasive the ads we’re served.


It’s a vicious circle of consumerism and privacy erosion, demonstrably bad for the natural environment and for our wellbeing, and the last thing children and teens should be exposed to.


"Surveillance advertising inflicts an incredible amount of harm on children, who are particularly vulnerable to the inherently manipulative power of marketing. Google, Facebook, and other technology companies pose an enormous threat to human rights with their very business models built on ubiquitous and constant surveillance.” 

- Rasha Abdul Rahim, Director of Amnesty Tech at Amnesty International 


New report

That’s why we started campaigning, via our End Surveillance Advertising to Kids coalition, for websites & apps popular with kids to turn off surveillance advertising to under 18s.


Today, we’re publishing new research jointly with the New Economics Foundation setting out how that goal can be realised.



view the report | i-spy: the billion-dollar business of surveillance advertising to kids 



We conclude that the best and most effective way to protect under 18s from surveillance advertising is to outlaw the practice for everyone, child and adult alike.


"Big Tech’s insatiable pursuit of engagement and invasive tracking of users is corrosive for children, society, and democracy at large. The harms identified in this report are features of the social media business model, not flaws that can be solved by self-regulation or tweaks to terms and conditions.


To protect children and to safeguard democracy Governments and regulators need to step up and ban surveillance advertising.”


- Naomi Hirst, Campaign Lead on Digital Threats, Global Witness


Banning surveillance advertising is good for everyone 

Having examined a range of options, a new legal ban on surveillance advertising – enacted by strictly limiting the data that a website can share with adtech providers – emerges as the simplest and most elegant solution. In fact, it scores highly on each of the six success criteria we propose.


And it has many beneficiaries.


A ban would unravel the surveillance advertising business model, a model where hate speech, extreme content, doom-scrolling and addiction are features, not bugs.


A ban would liberate kids and adults alike from invasive and pervasive adverts based on sensitive personal data.


It would free all of us from the irritating and creepy sensation of being followed around the web.


It would allow kids the freedom to explore their emerging identities, to be curious, and to make mistakes – without all of that being tracked and funnelled back into profiles bought and sold by shady adtech companies.


It would help us – not algorithms – decide what we liked on the internet.


It would benefit quality publishers, who currently lose out to disreputable or fake sites, where users can be lured with clickbait, tracked and shown ads more cheaply.


And, of course, it would limit the amount of consumerism rammed down our throats.


Why ministers must act


"Google and Facebook must immediately stop targeting children with invasive data harvesting and manipulation. But only by radically overhauling the way that these companies operate can we truly protect children’s rights in the digital age.” 

- Rasha Abdul Rahim, Director of Amnesty Tech at Amnesty International 


In recent months – particularly since the Capitol riots of 6 January – more and more organisations have identified surveillance advertising as the thread weaving through a vast range of on- and offline harms. Bipartisan support for banning surveillance advertising has sprung up among US lawmakers. High profile legal cases against YouTube and TikTok’s data practices regarding children could be just the tip of the iceberg.


But such is the wealth of Google, Facebook and other actors in the surveillance advertising economy, that even the largest legal settlements may be considered little more than the costs of doing business.


That’s why it’s high time Governments stepped in, and the UK Government’s draft ‘Online Safety Bill’ gives Ministers the perfect opportunity to do just that.


Ministers must confront the surveillance advertising business model head-on and amend the Online Safety Bill to include a ban on surveillance advertising.


Unless they do, the Bill will fail on its own terms and tech giants will continue to profit at kids’ and the planet’s expense.


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