by Oliver Hayes,
Policy and Campaigns Lead
4 min read
Major breakthrough for Global Action Plan's End Surveillance Advertising to Kids campaign
In a significant victory for our End Surveillance Advertising to Kids campaign, Facebook has finally admitted that surveillance advertising to under 18s is damaging, and will be turning it off across Facebook, Messenger and Instagram in the coming weeks:
“Starting in a few weeks, we’ll only allow advertisers to target ads to people under 18 (or older in certain countries) based on their age, gender and location. This means that previously available targeting options, like those based on interests or on their activity on other apps and websites, will no longer be available to advertisers.”
- Facebook, 27 July
It’s hard to overstate how significant this is. Facebook has never before acknowledged there is any problem with allowing marketers to target children with invasive and manipulative ads. Its July announcement broke that mould:
"We already give people ways to tell us that they would rather not see ads based on their interests or on their activities on other websites and apps, such as through controls within our ad settings. But we’ve heard from youth advocates that young people may not be well equipped to make these decisions.”
- Facebook, 27 July
Facebook has known about this for a long time. For years, advocates like Fairplay and the Centre for Digital Democracy have made very plain the harm caused by spying on children for profit. It is not credible for Facebook to imply that only recently have they come to understand these harms.
What is more likely, is that the recent public and regulatory pressure reached a point where they felt compelled to act.
Huge credit in that respect should be given to all the members of our End Surveillance Advertising to Kids coalition, 25 organisations and experts who signed our Sept 2020 letter to Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, demanding they turn off surveillance ads to under 18s.
It is remarkable that in under a year, this campaign has taken an issue that received very little attention, put it on the front pages, and secured a major victory against arguably the most powerful organisation on the planet.
A huge part of this success has been due to the work by Duncan McCann of the New Economics Foundation, who we commissioned to get under the hood of the billion dollar industry of surveillance advertising to kids, and show how it could be stopped.
As ever, success has many mothers and fathers.
In the US, campaigning by Accountable Tech has built public understanding of ‘Surveillance Advertising’ as a concept; the investigations by Reset Australia and Global Witness have publicly embarrassed Facebook by showing just how easy it is to target children – and adults – with harmful ads. And 5Rights in the UK have created a regulatory environment – what’s known as the Kids Code – that makes spying on kids for profit much less acceptable.
Finally, our friends at Foxglove Legal have brilliantly cranked up the legal pressure on major platforms regarding their use of kids’ data.
Though a big step forward, this is not ‘job done’.
For a start, Facebook has admitted that though ads won’t be targeted at under 18s, kids’ data will still be collected. In other words, the moment kids turn 18, Facebook will be able to offer marketers every insight imaginable based on their juvenile activity.
Secondly, we need surveillance advertising to kids to stop throughout the internet, not just on Facebook’s services. All the major platforms should now be pressured to follow Facebook’s lead, and go further by committing to not tracking their under-age users.
Lawmakers could and should make it simple for them by outlawing the practice. As our report argued, the best way to do this is to turn surveillance advertising off for all users, regardless of age.
This is the case we will be making to the committee of MPs and Peers scrutinising the Government’s draft Online Safety Bill, which – we argue - will fail in its stated aims unless it is amended to outlaw surveillance advertising and the tracking that underpins it.
But for now, here at Global Action Plan we are allowing ourselves a moment of celebration.
This campaign was borne of an urgent need to challenge the systemic drivers of consumerism – the powerful myth that making, buying and trashing ever more stuff is the route to happiness. We know that the health of the planet and its inhabitants is imperilled by consumerism, and we know that surveillance advertising to children is one of consumerism’s more powerful vectors.
This victory, while partial, shows that collectively we can challenge the dominant systems preventing a fair society and a thriving planet.