The European Targeted-Ad Ban Goes Too Far, and Not Far Enough

The tide is turning against tech titans

Key Takeaways

  • The Digital Services Act would ban some, but not all, targeted ads.
  • The legislation also targets hate speech and counterfeit goods.
  • The European Parliament has only approved a draft bill so far.
giant, building sized Euro symbol in yellow and blue

Tabrez Syed / Unsplash

The European Parliament has approved a draft bill to ban targeted ads, but it's not as great as it sounds.

The Digital Services Act (DSA) restricts the use of some sensitive information for ad targeting. It also lets users opt-out of tracking and can force platforms like Facebook and Twitter to remove illegal content, hate speech, and more. The draft was approved with 530 votes for, 78 against, and 80 abstentions, which is as close to a landslide as you could hope. However, marketing experts and academics say the proposed laws go too far, and not far enough. 

"The Digital Services Act, which was initiated in 2020, does not ban targeted ads outright. It does ban ad targeting based on 'sensitive' data such as sexual orientation, religion, and race," Matt Voda, CEO of online marketing company OptiMine, told Lifewire via email. "So, it is an important privacy move, but only goes so far from a tracking and targeting perspective."

Bad Ads

The ad industry has been using surveillance advertising for years and seems to feel entitled to continue, but that doesn't mean it should. Technology pundit John Gruber likens the ad industry's objections to "pawn shops suing to keep the police from cracking down on a wave of burglaries."

But the tide is finally turning. This legislation is a start at controlling the invasive practices of ad companies like Google and Facebook, and exerting some control over what social networks can publish. Right now, these largely US-based companies do whatever they like, anywhere in the world, and largely ignore the consequences. Even a billion-dollar fine isn't a big deal for these behemoths. 

The Digital Services Act, which was initiated in 2020, does not ban targeted ads outright.

By going after ad-targeting tech itself, Europe could cut off these privacy-hostile practices at the root. That's the theory anyway.

"If you believe that 'privacy' also includes blocking ads that are targeted based on the tracking of consumers' online behaviors, interests, or other online activity, the DSA does not prevent any of that," says Voda. "For example, if you are browsing online information about 'switching jobs; and then you are served targeted ads on your company laptop about 'switching jobs,' this private (and very sensitive) information and ad targeting would still be fair game under these new rules."

Too Far, Yet Not Far Enough

It's apparent that we need legislation to put big tech on a leash instead of the anything-goes-in-the-name-of-innovation attitude up until now. The hard part is doing it. The reach of these companies is so huge that local laws often slip off. Instead of a swath of smaller, more focussed laws, the DSA tries to fix too much at once and ends up confusing things. 

"The issue, and where tech companies will seek to fight against the new bill, is that governments act more like saws than scalpels," Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at the University of Florida, told Lifewire via email.

"We need more tech regulation, but the proposed bill is too broad," Selepak continued. "The proposed bill would prevent tech companies from using sensitive information like sexual orientation or religion for targeted ads. But this could mean groups like Catholic Charities would not be able to create ads targeting Catholic parishioners, or GLADD could not use targeted ads to reach young people to offer assistance."

When one gets deeper into the bill's proposals, it starts to look a little disjointed. Why are targeted ads lumped in with controls on hate speech, for example? It's almost like legislators regard big tech as a single problem rather than many problems that permeate all aspects of life. 

"The proposed bill would also require tech companies to remove hate speech," says Selepak. "But who would determine what constitutes hate speech? The tech companies? Individual countries? The European Parliament? Would hate speech be limited by local laws, allowing different content in different countries, or would the tech companies have to abide by the strictest hate speech laws anywhere in the world?"

There are still a lot of questions to answer before the bill becomes law, but at least this is a start. And a pretty good one at that.

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