FTC Asked To Prohibit 'Surveillance' Advertising

An exterior view of the Federal Trade Commission building
(Image credit: Future)

Calling out Facebook and Google, among others, nonprofit watchdog group Accountable Tech has called on the Federal Trade Commission to ban targeted advertising based on user data, or what it calls “surveillance” advertising.

That came in a petition for rulemaking filed Tuesday (Sept. 28) that asked the FTC to stop the practice of “unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting,” which it calls an example of the unfair competition the agency is charged with preventing.

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"These dominant firms [it calls out Google and Facebook by name] have used surveillance advertising to reinforce unfair advantages across business lines, stamp out meaningful competition throughout the digital economy, and broadly abuse their market power in ways that cause significant harm to businesses, consumers, and society," the petition asserts. 

The petition calls for simply prohibiting the use of personal data for targeted advertising, which it calls the ”strongest and simplest remedy,“ though one that would likely wreak havoc with the current model for ad-supported free online content.

Failing that, it said, the FTC could adopt a “more restrained rule” that would prohibit businesses from sharing user data for ad purposes with "any business line, website, advertising technology, or tracker other than the business or service with which a user intentionally interacts.“

But either way, it suggested, ”unless the FTC moves to prohibit the surveillance advertising business model at a fundamental level, it will continue to inflict significant and self-perpetuating harms on competition, consumers, and society.“

The petition has at least one big supporter on Capitol Hill, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who has been a leading voice on reining in such targeted advertising, including working on a bill to ban it.

“The surveillance advertising business model is irredeemably and fundamentally broken,” Eshoo said of the petition. ”I urge the FTC to initiate a rulemaking to ban surveillance advertising, as a petition filed with the Commission last week recommends. This pernicious practice allows online platforms to chase user engagement at great cost to our society, and it enables online disinformation, discrimination, voter suppression, privacy abuses and so many other harms.”

The FTC has historically done its work via lawsuits and settlements, rather than rulemakings, but has been under pressure to flex its rulemaking muscle, something new FTC chair Lina Khan definitely appears willing to do.

Certainly Accountable Tech and Eshoo are rooting for that more muscular approach.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.