Pluralistic: To save the news, ban surveillance ads (31 May 2023)

Today's links

EFF's banner for the save news series; the word 'NEWS' appears in pixelated, gothic script in the style of a newspaper masthead. Beneath it in four entwined circles are logos for breaking up ad-tech, ending surveillance ads, opening app stores, and end-to-end delivery. All the icons except for 'ending surveillance ads' are greyed out.

To save the news, ban surveillance ads (permalink)

Big Tech steals from the news, but what it steals isn't content – it steals money. That matters, because if we create pseudo-copyrights over the facts of the news, or headlines, or snippets to help news companies bargain with tech companies, we make the news partners with the tech companies, rather than watchdogs.

How does tech steal money from the news? Lots of ways! One important one: tech steals ad revenue. 51% of every ad dollar gets gobbled up by tech companies – primarily the cozy, collusive ad-tech duopoly of Google/Facebook (AKA Googbook). If we can shatter the market power of the concentrated ad-tech industry, news companies would go back to getting 80-90% of the ad revenue their reporting generated, which would pay for more reporting.

There's lots to like about fixing ads. For one thing, a fair ad marketplace would benefit all news reporting, not just the largest news companies – which are dominated by private equity-backed chains and right-wing billionaires who have repeatedly shown that any additional revenues will go to pay shareholders, not more reporters. Fair ads would also provide an income for reporters who strike out on their own, covering local politics or specific beats, without making themselves sharecroppers for Big Media.

One way to fix ads would be to break up the ad-tech "stacks." Googbook both operate impossibly conflicted ad-placement businesses in which they bargain with themselves on behalf of both advertisers and publishers, with the winners always being the tech companies. The AMERICA Act from Senator Mike Lee would force ad giants to divest themselves of business units that create conflicts of interest. It's popular, bipartisan legislation – and I do mean bipartisan; its backers include Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz! I wrote about the AMERICA Act and the role it will play in saving news from tech for EFF's Deeplinks Blog last week:

This week, I've got a followup on Deeplinks about another important way to unrig the ad market: banning surveillance ads:

Even if we break up the ad-tech stacks, ads will still be bad for the news – and for the public. That's because the dominant form of digital ads is "behavioral advertising" – the ad-tech sector's polite euphemism for ads based on spying. You know these ads: you search for shoes and then every website you land on is plastered in shoe ads.

Surveillance ads require a massive, multi-billion-dollar surveillance dragnet, one that tracks you as you physically move through the world, and digitally, as you move through the web. Your apps, your phone and your browser are constantly gathering data on your activities to feed the ad-tech industry.

This data is incredibly dangerous. There's so much of it, and it's so loosely regulated, that every spy, cop, griefer, stalker, harasser, and identity thief can get it for pennies and use it however they see fit. The ad-tech industry poses a risk to protesters, to people seeking reproductive care, to union organizers, and to vulnerable people targeted by scammers.

Ad-tech maintains the laughable pretense that all this spying is consensual, because you clicked "I agree" on some garbage-novella of impenetrable legalese that no one – not even the ad-tech companies' lawyers – has ever read from start to finish. But when people are given a real choice to opt out of digital spying, they do. Apple gave Ios users a one-click opt-out of in-app tracking and 96% of users clicked it (the other 4% must have been confused – or on Facebook's payroll). The decision cost Facebook $10b in the first year. You love to see it:

But here's the real punchline: Apple blocked Facebook from spying on its customers, but Apple kept spying on them, just as invasively as Facebook had, in order to target them with Apple's own ads:

The thing that stops companies from spying on us isn't the strength of their character, it's the discipline imposed by regulation and competition – the fear that they'll get fined more than they make from spying, and the fear that they'll lose so much business from spying that they'll end up in the red.

Which is why we need a legal ban on ads, not mere platitudes on billboards advertising companies' "respect" for our privacy. The US is way overdue for a federal privacy law with a private right of action, which would let you and me sue the companies who violated it, even if no public prosecutor was willing to go to bat for us:

A privacy law that required companies to get your affirmative, enthusiastic, ongoing, specific, informed consent to gather and process your personal data would end surveillance ads forever. Despite the self-serving nonsense the ad-tech industry serves up about people "liking relevant ads," no one wants to be spied on. 96% of Ios users don't lie.

A ban on surveillance ads wouldn't just serve the public, it would also save the news. The alternative to surveillance ads is contextual ads: ads based on what a reader is reading, rather than what that reader was doing. Context-based ad marketplaces ask, "What am I bid for this Pixel 6 user in Boise who is reading about banana farming?" instead of "What am I bid for this 22 year old man who recently searched for information about suicidal ideation and bankruptcy protection?"

Contextual ads perform a little worse than surveillance ads – by about 5%:

So presumably advertisers won't pay as much for contextual ads as they do for behavioral targeting. But that doesn't mean that the news will lose money. Because contextual ads favor publishers over ad-tech platforms – no publisher will ever know as much about internet users as spying ad-tech giants do, but no tech company will ever know as much about a publisher's content as the publisher does.

Behavioral ad marketplaces have high barriers to entry, requiring troves of surveillance data on billions of internet users. They are naturally anticompetitive and able to command a much higher share of each ad dollar than a contextual ad service (which would have much more competiition) could.

On top of that: if behavioral advertising was limited to people who truly consented to it, 96% of users would never see an ad!

So contextual ads will show up for more users, and more of the money they generate will land in news publishers' pockets. If context ads fetch less money per ad, the losses will be felt by ad-tech companies, not publishers.

Finally: publishers who join the fight against surveillance ads won't be alone – they'll be joining with a massive, popular movement against commercial surveillance. The news business is – and always has been – a niche subject, of burning interest to publishers, reporters, and a small minority of news junkies. The news on its own is a small fry in policy debates. But when it comes to killing surveillance ads, the news has a class alliance with the mass movement for privacy, and together, they're a force to reckon with.

My article on killing surveillance ads is part three of an ongoing, five-part series for EFF on how we can save the news from tech. The introduction, which sets out the whole series, is here:

The final two parts will come out over the next two weeks, and then we're going to publish the whole thing as a PDF that's suitable for sharing. Watch this space!

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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