Biden draws attention to his beloved Big Tech business model

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If the leaders of the Big Tech platforms thought geopolitics would take the pressure off their companies during Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address, but they were wrong. In a speech that covered a variety of topics, the president took the time to scold social media companies for what he called “a national experiment they are doing on our children for profit.” Biden urged Congress to “strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising children, to require technology companies to stop collecting personal data about our children.”

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Although it was only a passing mention, Biden’s call to ban targeted advertising to children, which drew notable applause, was something of a milestone. Until recently, the regulation of targeted advertising was not even close to mainstream. Now it’s in the State of the Union.

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Not too long ago, the most notorious example of federal lawmakers turning to online advertising was Orrin Hatch’s question to Mark Zuckerberg during the CEO’s first speech to Congress about how Facebook makes money from a free product. Zuckerberg went viral for his deadpan: “Senator, we’re running ads.”

Luke really knew Facebook sold ads; he feigned ignorance for rhetorical effect, as legislators often do during hearings. No matter. The exchange of information went viral as a supposed example of how out of touch Congress was when it came to technology. Facebook employees wore T-shirts with Zuckerberg’s phrase printed on them. Look at these old weirdos, they don’t even know how social media companies make money. How will they ever regulate them?

Until two years ago, Congress made little progress on this front. March 2020 a piece titled “Why don’t we just ban targeted ads?” I have written about a small group of thinkers who have begun publicly attributing a number of ills to the practice of tracking users to serve them personalized ads. It is quite obvious that this includes almost everything related to online Confidentiality abuse. When the Catholic priest was dismissed For example, for visiting gay bars, his employers used geo-targeting data from Grindr, which exists primarily to help with ad targeting. But microtargeted advertising comes with other problems as well. This is diverting advertising revenue away from media-creating organizations towards aggregation platforms that store the most extensive files on users. And this perhaps strengthens the incentives of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to steadily optimize to engage users.

But small was a working word to describe this group of critics: a lawyer here, a professor there. There was little sign that they were making progress with people who could really make a difference. Congress spent two years arguing about what to do with big tech, especially social media. But its members paid vanishingly little attention to the business model that drives it.

This is no longer the case. Over the past year, lawmakers have focused on an advertising model that supports social media platforms, increasingly referred to as “tracking ads,” a term that encompasses not only targeting but also the collection of data needed for targeting. . (This was partly due to an initiative by an advocacy group called Banning Tracking Ads, which launched in March 2021) “The problem is with the business model,” Congresswoman Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) said at a hearing in December. “One that’s designed to grab attention, collect and analyze what’s holding that attention, and advertise.” And so he asked, “Should we limit targeted advertising?” In January, Rep. Anna Eshu (R-Calif.) and Jan Szakowski (R-Illinois) along with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced Ad Surveillance Act. That same month, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced bipartisan bill to regulate the online advertising market more like stock marketdirectly challenging Google’s current status as a major buyer, seller, and marketplace for targeted advertising.

The digital advertising industry, of course, denies the bad reputation that tracking advertising has acquired. Industry advocates argue that moving away from behavioral targeting will make it harder for small businesses to reach customers and force consumers to pay for services that are currently free. These messages are designed to get the attention of business-minded lawmakers, but in Tuesday morning’s hearing, even Rep. Greg Pence (R-IN), the former vice president’s lesser-known brother, was skeptical that small businesses would benefit from the target. advertising. “I’m fighting it,” he said. said. “I often hear this from small businesses that use social media. This is good for some, but the vast majority say: “It will not give me anything.”

For a long time, tracking ads have largely worked in the background, driving the economic fortunes of big tech companies, but with little scrutiny. Those days seem to be gone.

“It’s very important to see something like this on the Union’s agenda, especially with so much going on in the world right now,” says Jesse Lerich, co-founder of the Accountable Tech advocacy group that helped organize Ban Surveillance. advertising coalition. According to Lerich, this would be even more serious if the call for a ban on surveillance extended beyond the protection of children.

But “think of the kids” seems to be the easiest starting point for a bipartisan Congress that has struggled to get things done and has been spinning wheels around privacy rules for years. In fact, this is true not only for the US. In the European Union, an attempt to introduce a ban on surveillance advertising in the upcoming Digital Services Act is facing great difficulties, but the EU Parliament still passed the amendment. ban targeted advertising for children. (The law has yet to be finalized.) No one in power seems to want to line up in defense of the widespread harassment and tracking of minors. Facebook itself last year announced that it will stop allowing advertisers to target users under the age of 18 using data obtained from other websites and apps, although the federal ban will likely go much further.

“The FTC and Congress should use their limited resources to modernize COPPA and COPPA enforcement, rather than waste time and money on misguided attempts to ban reasonable advertising use of data,” said Lartes Tiffith, Interactive’s executive vice president of public policy. Advertising Bureau trade group in an emailed statement citing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 2000.

It just so happens that last spring, Senator Ed Markey, author of COPPA, introduced an update to the law banning the behavioral targeting of advertising to minors, a sign of how impulsive the idea is.

Duncan McCann, who focuses on children’s privacy in Europe, told WIRED last year that children’s rights are the gateway to getting people to care about surveillance ads.

“Back in 2018, talking about banning surveillance ads was considered crazy,” he said. But talking to parents about their kids’ privacy got them interested. “I realized that perhaps the way to get society to take care of it is to first of all get society to take care of it from the point of view of children.”

Biban Kidron, the British director-turned-children’s rights advocate who spearheaded the development of Britain’s age-appropriate design code, made a similar point in an interview with WIRED last summer. Banning tracking ads for kids and allowing them for adults might seem like a no-brainer. But it could also lead to a change in norms for a generation of children, she said.

“What I’m hoping for,” she said, “is that the generation of kids who get higher levels of respect, higher levels of transparency, more privacy, are less willing to give that up as adults.”

Of course, a political recommendation in a speech about the situation in the country is nothing more than a wish. Biden’s speech was full of calls to action ranging from health care to voting reforms. Whether Congress can agree to ban child surveillance will determine how seriously its members take broader online privacy regulation. One thing is clear: the attention-grabbing industry has finally gained recognition in Washington.

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