It is an open secret that the world’s most popular social media apps and websites collect users’ data in order to tailor advertisements to those users. The worst offenders however may establishment news outlets, the very institutions the public trust to keep informed. Surveillance advertising has become a ubiquitous and extremely profitable practice, especially for news sites. As the Biden administration and the Federal Trade Commission seek to regulate the collection of user data, corporate media outlets are pushing back, Lee Fang reported for the Intercept in February 2022. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a trade group that represents online media outlets that depend on digital advertising, is lobbying against FTC efforts to restrict the collection and monetization of user data. As Fang wrote, the IAB represents CNN.com, the New York Times Company, NBCUniversal, Time Magazine, US News & World Report, Washington Post Digital, Fox News, and “dozens of other media companies.”
Revenues from surveillance advertising drive the lobbying efforts against regulation. Media corporations argue that targeted advertising—and, by extension, the siphoning of user data—has become necessary due to declining revenues from print sales and subscriptions. However, despite a decline in print sales, surveillance advertising profits have soared for most media conglomerates over the last decade. While non-digital advertising revenue has decreased from $124.8 billion in 2011 to $89.8 billion in 2020, over the same time period digital advertising revenue has risen from $31.9 billion to $152.2 billion, according to Pew Research.
Besides advertising, the siphoning of user data also enables more direct manipulation of the public as in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, which made headlines in 2018. The vast distribution of user data to different third-party aggregators also makes it impossible to ensure that user data does not fall into the wrong hands, such as the illegal collection of minors’ location data by OpenX for which the FTC fined the company in December 2021. Major news outlets did not cover that story, Fang wrote, because “they would have had to acknowledge an awkward reality”: Major news corporations including the New York Times, CNN, Gizmodo, HuffPost, Fox News, and Der Spiegel use (or had recently been using) OpenX to place targeted ads of their own.
To combat the secret collection of private data, the Biden administration and the Federal Trade Commission have begun crafting legislation to regulate online data collection by tech companies. As a result, Fang wrote, “the advertising technology industry is facing its first real challenge of federal regulation.”
A 2019 study by privacy researchers Timothy Libert an Reuben Binns found concluded that “the democratic role of the press is being undermined by reliance on the ‘surveillance capitalism’ funding model.” Specifically, Libert and Binns found 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 growth of digital advertising has “forced nearly every major for-profit news website to utilize the most intrusive forms of mass surveillance, including browsing history and location data,” Fang reported. The big question, he concluded, is, how to create a free press that is not reliant on mass data collection? Due to conflicts of interest, that question and the concerns arising from it have not been well covered by corporate news media.
Source: 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 Advisor: Robert Williams (Saint Michael’s College)