Note — Mar 29, 2020

Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?

Overview of the multiple reasons why banning targeted ads would be good, simpler than dealing with privacy issues, and excellent for politics and democracy. An especially alluring option, since the only thing really “lost” would be more precise ads. (The author does look at what might be lost, or not, revenue wise for publishers.)

Instead of trying to clean up all these messes one by one, the logic goes, why not just remove the underlying financial incentive? Targeting ads based on individual user data didn’t even really exist until the past decade. (Indeed, Google still makes many billions of dollars from ads tied to search terms, which aren’t user-specific.) What if companies simply weren’t allowed to do it anymore? […]

“I honestly believe we are not going to solve any of the problems that we’re worried about, like election interference and disinformation, unless we ban targeted advertising.” […]

[Zephyr Teachout] co-authored a paper arguing that the dominant internet platforms should be treated as public utilities and prohibited from using behavioral ads. If telephone utilities aren’t allowed to eavesdrop on our conversations and sell the details to marketers, then Amazon or YouTube shouldn’t be able to do the same with our browsing history. […]

Even a subscription-based social network would want to engage its users, he said, and what engages users is sensationalism and filter bubbles. “I do not think it is enough to address the damage of microtargeting if you don’t also deal with algorithmic amplification,” McNamee told me.