Call for ban on surveillance advertising ‘spying on our kids’

Surveillance advertising has been collecting the personal information of internet users in order to tailor adverts to their preferences.

Girl sitting in bed on laptop in the dark.

A British think-tank, which promotes social and economic justice, has called for a ban on surveillance advertising that targets children.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) recently conducted research that covered the large-scale utilisation of digital profiles in the advertising industry, but focused more specifically on the threat to children. Its report argued that children, who make up a third of internet users, are more vulnerable to marketing and naive to the uses of their data. The NEF has suggested that a legal ban on surveillance advertising be introduced to protect children online. 

The research revealed teenagers scroll past more than 400 adverts per hour on Instagram. This figure becomes 1,260 adverts a day, based on average online time.

Oliver Hayes, policy and campaigns lead at Global Action Plan, an NGO that specialises in sustainable behaviour change, fears how such a volume of adverts could impact the mental health of young people.

He said: “Pummelling kids with invasive ads fuels ​‘compare and despair’, undermines wellbeing, and embeds hyper-consumerism which damages mental health as well as the planet.”

Alongside this exposure to adverts, the research estimated that the digital profiles of 820 million children are broadcast and auctioned across ad exchanges everyday.

Senior researcher at NEF, Duncan McCann, discussed how, although under-13s should be protected, “the safety measures to prevent it aren’t fit for purpose”.

He also urged the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill to “stop the internet from spying on our kids in order to track and advertise to them.”

The Online Safety Bill (May 2021) prioritised the monitoring of harmful and illegal content, rather than commenting on surveillance advertising. Hayes considers its policies inadequate to protect children online.

He has called for a legal ban of surveillance advertising, adding: “Our laws don’t allow kids to be spied on for profit in the real world so why don’t we protect them in the digital world?”

Is surveillance advertising all bad?

Surveillance advertising collects the personal information of internet users in order to tailor adverts to their preferences. The practice also aims to improve the efficiency of each advert’s revenue and website’s overall ad sales, benefiting businesses and larger tech companies.

On the one hand, the NEF’s report outlined the dangers of surveillance advertising to children. The research also considered the risk of spreading disinformation. For example, 4,000 brands unintentionally bought adverts on websites misinforming on COVID-19.

In addition, the report raised the problem of discrimination in adtech algorithms, which could potentially exclude certain groups of people. For example, Facebook approved house-for-rent adverts, which had been blocked from certain categories of user, although this discrimination is illegal.

McCann argues that surveillance advertising exists solely to benefit ad tech companies, which “profit at the expense of children, wider society and even online publishers”.

On the other hand, surveillance advertising opens up the internet to be more accessible. Fewer websites need to charge users to view them if generating income from adverts. Facebook defended surveillance advertising, following Apple’s change to its privacy policies.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg argued that small businesses, not large tech firms, would lose out from further restrictions.

He said: “Many small businesses will no longer be able to reach their customers with targeted ads.”

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