It is time to target online advertising

Wojciech Wiewiórowski

I can still remember how the internet was once presented to me. A space where everyone could express themselves freely, find and share information, a global force for democracy. But the dream of that great agora was never fully realised.

What was once the promise of a free and open environment was gradually replaced by walled gardens. The place for human flourishing became a space of advertising-driven business models and continuous surveillance. Digital services designed to maximise engagement, to track, to target.

Targeted advertising has concerned data protection advocates for many years. But I only recently became painfully aware of how its business model leads to societal harms. If Cambridge Analytica was becoming a fading memory, the recent testimony by Frances Haugen brought back sobering clarity. Political and ideological polarisation, disinformation and manipulation seem to have become inherent byproducts of today’s so called “attention economy”.

The Proposal for a Digital Services Act recognises many of the significant risks associated with online targeted advertising. The Proposal for a Regulation on the Transparency and Targeting of Political Advertising follows the same path, proposing additional rules designed to increase transparency and accountability. 

Let me be clear: transparency is essential but it is not enough

If we are truly serious about tackling the risks that surround online targeted advertising, we will need more than increased transparency. In our Opinion on the Proposal for a Digital Services Act, we advocated for a prohibition of targeted advertising on the basis of pervasive tracking. Alternative models exist, but we need regulatory incentives to favour less intrusive forms of advertising that do not require tracking of user interaction with content.

How do we achieve this? At the very least, we should consider further restricting the categories of personal data that can be processed for targeted advertising purposes. Special categories of data or other data that can be used to exploit vulnerabilities should not be used to target ads. Processing of data from vulnerable groups, such as children, can have unexpected results for an entire generation.

The current state of the internet is not set in stone, it is instead the product of human and political choices. It is time to make change happen. It is time to set clear limits to online targeted advertising.