The world’s most popular social media apps and platforms—Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok—collect users’ data and employ it to target them with tailored advertising. This sort of “surveillance advertising” has become a ubiquitous and extremely profitable practice. As Lee Fang reported for the Intercept in February 2022, the Biden administration’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is now seeking to regulate the collection of user data. But lobbyists for online advertisers and their big media clients are pushing back.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a trade group that represents media outlets utilizing digital advertising, has strenuously opposed FTC efforts to restrict the collection and monetization of user data. As Fang wrote, the IAB represents CNN, the New York Times, NBC, the Washington Post, Fox News, and “dozens of other media companies.”
The IAB argues that targeted advertising—and, by extension, the siphoning of user data—has become necessary due to declining revenues from print sales and subscriptions. Surveillance advertising sales have soared for most media conglomerates over the past decade as traditional ad sales have shrunk. Non-digital advertising revenue decreased from $124.8 billion in 2011 to $89.8 billion in 2020, while digital advertising revenue rose from $31.9 billion to $152.2 billion in the same period, according to Pew Research.
A 2019 study by privacy researchers Timothy Libert and Reuben Binns found that “the democratic role of the press is being undermined by reliance on the ‘surveillance capitalism’ funding model.” They concluded that “news sites are more reliant on third-parties than non-news sites, user privacy is compromised to a greater degree on news sites, and privacy policies lack transparency in regards to observed tracking behaviors.”
The user information collected by media sites also enables direct manipulation of public perceptions of political issues, as famously happened when the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica tapped into personal data from millions of Facebook users to craft campaign propaganda during the 2016 US presidential election. The mass transfer of user data to third-party aggregators also makes it virtually impossible to ensure that such data collection does not violate existing regulations protecting child privacy online. Indeed, the FTC fined OpenX $2 million in December 2021 for illegal collection of minors’ location in violation of the commission’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule. Major news outlets chose not to cover the story, Fang wrote, because “they would have had to acknowledge an awkward reality,” that they also use (or have used) OpenX to place targeted ads of their own.
In July 2021, President Biden issued an executive order on competition that included a directive for the FTC to develop rules regarding the “surveillance of users.” In December 2021, the activist group Accountable Tech petitioned the FTC to prohibit surveillance advertising altogether. In response, the commission has begun crafting and taking public comments on regulations designed to rein in online data collection by digital advertisers. As Fang reported, the IAB responded by demanding that the FTC oppose any ban on surveillance ads, claiming that thousands of media outlets would be hurt by such a ban. According to OpenSecrets, the IAB spent $160,000 on lobbying efforts in 2021, much of it related to proposed legislation restricting the collection and exploitation of online personal data.
The corporate media have reported the FTC’s openness to new rules limiting the collection and exploitation of user data, but have generally not drawn attention to IAB lobbying against the proposed regulations. For example, in September 2021, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post ran articles on Accountable Tech’s petition and the FTC’s consideration of new regulations governing surveillance advertising. However, neither outlet discussed IAB, its lobbying on this issue, or the big media clients the organization represents.
Lee Fang, “Major Media Outlets That Use Invasive User Tracking Are Lobbying Against Regulation,” The Intercept, February 1, 2022.
Student Researcher: Christian Vogt (Saint Michael’s College)
Faculty Evaluator: Robert Williams (Saint Michael’s College)