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Europe has tried to control online privacy with mixed results. Today, a growing movement suggests it’s time to go much further – by imposing a total ban on 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 regulation that established data control as a “fundamental right” for individuals and threatened fines of up to 4% of annual turnover for any company found at fault.
But three years later, the GDPR has yet to fully utilize its power to sanction or, according to critics, impose profound changes to the operating model of technological behemoths. With no change, a group of European lawmakers, policymakers, regulators and activists – backed by civil society allies in the United States – are now saying it’s time to finish the job by banning practices that allow advertisers and political parties to follow individuals with personalized messages as they move around the web.
In other words, that Halloween costume that has been following you around the web since last October may become a thing of the past.
“It cannot be an economic model in a free society,” said Alexandra Geese, a German member of the Green group in the European Parliament who, together with her fellow lawmaker Paul Tang, is at the forefront of a campaign to to stop online microtargeting. .
It is, to say the least, a radical notion. Microtargeting – in which advertisers use hyper-detailed data profiles to target individuals with paid posts – isn’t just a pillar of the Silicon Valley business model that underpins the empires of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. . It is also widely used by mainstream media organizations which, despite their scrutiny in Silicon Valley, have embraced targeted advertising as a way to supplant revenue lost as digital giants rise to power.
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 private information leak on 533 million Facebook users revealed on Last weekend.
The ensuing global collapse of public support for Big Tech has prompted companies like Google, and most notably Apple, to embrace a privacy-focused public message that promises to limit the effects of microtargeting, otherwise to eliminate it completely.
Supporters of a ban say it won’t go far enough. Because microtargeting divides and segments humanity into one-person interest groups, they claim, it poses a “threat to a free liberal democracy,” according to Geese.
And while the main supporters of a ban – the green and left-wing lawmakers in the European Parliament and their allies – face a tall order to get their proposal enshrined in EU law, they have won crucial support. a senior privacy regulator, members of the EU executive arm and civil society groups.
In October, a majority in the European Parliament backed a call to limit online ad tracking. There are now plans to include a ban in the EU’s flagship online content bill, the Digital Services Act, currently meandering through the legislative process.
Last month, the chief of staff of the European commissioner for justice expressed his provisional support for a ban on microtargeting. “Banning certain practices like microtargeting at certain times” is a “debate that needs to take place,” Renate Nikolay said at an event in early March.
Do you remember the GDPR?
Three years after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, confidence in the tech industry is still plummeting, reaching all-time lows around the world last year, according to a global survey by Edelman. And the pressure to curb Big Tech through regulation is increasing from Sydney to Brussels and Washington.
And then there is the question of their effectiveness. When Dutch broadcaster NPO decided last year to ditch user tracking and switch to context-only ads, it found that ad revenue had actually increased. “The system is rife with frauds,” said Johnny Ryan, senior researcher at the Irish Civil Liberties Council. “Any sane 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 addicted to ad tracking, whose supporters raise a troubling point: Doesn’t Europe already have far-reaching privacy guarantees through the regulation? general on data protection?
Indeed, three years after the GDPR went live, regulators have yet to deliver a killing blow to Big Tech due to privacy breaches. And despite major lawsuits targeting the wickedly complex auction system for online advertisements, known as real-time auctions, no investigation is nearly complete yet.
“We don’t need to ban targeted advertising,” said a senior ad technology executive who asked not to be named. “We need the GDPR to be enforced. There is a sickening lack of enforcement of the GDPR.”
The European Data Protection Supervisor is in no doubt. Rather than a silver bullet to all privacy breaches, GDPR “defines the general environment in which data protection operates in the EU,” Wojciech Wiewiórowski told POLITICO.
He argued that the best way to address the societal impact of the technology is through the Digital Services Act, which was unveiled in December. “It can step in directly where the problem is,” Wiewiórowski added, 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 coming to an end, in part thanks to the action of the tech giants themselves.
Apple last summer unveiled plans to tell iPhone users what kind of data their apps are collecting on them and an easy option to opt out.
Google is testing an update to its popular Chrome browser that would phase out third-party cookies – pieces of code that let advertisers know where you’ve been and how to best target you. (Facebook and Amazon, the two biggest adtech players besides Google, haven’t announced plans to limit data collection.)
Critics are quick to point out that these measures by Apple and Google are nothing like what Geese and his allies are calling for. Both companies will continue to collect user data and use it to sell targeted ads; they just don’t allow third parties to do this on their platforms.
The result, according to antitrust lawsuits filed against the two companies in France and Texas, is that the two companies will become even more dominant by partitioning their section of the Internet to outside suppliers. Critics say it’s up to Big Tech to use privacy as an excuse to bolster its market position while getting ahead of potential regulation.
But for average internet users, the bottom line is that privacy – and the promise that your data can’t be sold to any vendor looking to sell a Halloween costume – is on the rise.
“What is coming to an end is the era of the unlicensed Wild West of stalking,” Olejnik said.
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