According to social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff, in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, in 2001 tech executives looking to save their companies from the ensuing dot com bust, met in the heart of Santa Clara County and designed the groundwork for the ubiquitous advertising model of our time: Surveillance advertising.
It is the practice that we all have become too accustomed to. We give up a little bit — actually, a lot — about ourselves and our online behavior in exchange for seemingly better ads. It has become synonymous with the entities who have perfected it for billions of dollars: Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and, of course its loving parents, Google.
Recently, in a congressional hearing with the CEOs of three of those companies — Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and Sundar Pichai of Google — our very own Rep. Anna Eshoo did something rather unorthodox for American politics. Two of the men, Zuckerberg and Pichai, reside in her district and are undoubtedly two of her most influential constituents, but that didn’t stop her from declaring her intent to strike at the heart of their fortune:
“Your model has a cost to society,” Eshoo said. “The most engaging posts are often those that induce fear, anxiety, anger and that includes deadly, deadly misinformation. This is dangerous and it’s why Representative Schakowsky and I are doing a bill that is going to ban this business model of surveillance advertising.”
Her comment came mere days after a coalition of activist organizations called for such a ban. (Disclosure: I founded the Citizens Privacy Coalition of Santa Clara County, a member of the coalition).
In an interview I conducted with the organizer of the coalition, Jesse Lehrich of Accountable Tech, he explained exactly why surveillance advertising is so dangerous.
“The entire business model is optimized for maximum engagement so that they can keep people on the platforms for as long as possible and serve them more targeted ads,” he said. “So, a lot of times, that manifests in pushing people into more and more extreme content.”
Eshoo made a similar argument on Twitter.
The coalition cites a January survey in which 81% of respondents indicated they would support a ban on companies “collecting people’s personal data and using it to target them with ads.”
This data is supported by the fact that only 4% of iPhone users in the U.S. have agreed to allow apps to track their activity in other apps on their phone. Apple gave users this option late last month.
Some clear examples of the dangers that likely make so many people uneasy come from investigations from the Tech Transparency Project (TTP). In January, they showed that Facebook allowed military gear to be advertised to users known to consume extremist content. What’s more, many of the advertisements were shown alongside posts concerning the Capitol insurrection.
Just last week, TTP showed that it was possible to target minors on Facebook interested in “extreme weight loss” and “diet food” with ads encouraging eating disorders. Additionally, other ads were approved, also targeting minors, promoting vaping, dating, gambling, drugs and alcohol. In the publication of its research, TTP concluded that Facebook is “positioned to profit from harmful messages … aimed at a vulnerable age group.”
Lehrich has perhaps seen the the negative effects of surveillance advertising closer than most. He recounted to me his experiences as a staffer of the 2016 Clinton campaign.
“I was sort of dealing first hand with the foreign influence campaigns and the manipulation of social media platforms and information warfare in general and seeing the effect that has on our democracy,” he said. “Since then, I’m just keenly aware of the effect that social media platforms and the modern flow of information has on democracy and society at large.”
This experience explains his perhaps unusual reaction to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. In an op-ed published shortly after the attack, he said, “As one news anchor after another expressed shock, I kept involuntarily muttering, then yelling, the same thing: ‘What did you think was gonna happen?”
Now, we all have dealt with the effects of surveillance advertising first hand and maybe we can reasonably predict what will happen should it be allowed to continue. As residents of Silicon Valley — or rather Surveillance Valley — we have a unique obligation to support the movement to ban surveillance advertising.
To express your support to Eshoo for her upcoming bill, call 650-323-2984.
If you’re represented by Rep. Ro Khanna and would like him to support this initiative, his office can be reached at 408-436-2720. If you’re represented by Rep. Zoe Lofgren and would like her to support this initiative, her office can be reached at 408-271-8700.
San José Spotlight columnist Ethan Gregory Dodge is the founder of the Citizens Privacy Coalition of Santa Clara County. He is also the creator of Surveillance Today, a weekly newsletter and podcast discussing current events in surveillance. His columns appear every second Wednesday of the month. Contact Ethan at [email protected] or follow @egd_io on Twitter.
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