I recently highlighted a Wired article reporting on the group behind the website bansurveillanceadvertising.com. A coalition of organizations posted an open letter to the website calling on law makers to ban trageting advertisements shown to a user based on their behavior, browsing habits, purchase history, etc. The business model, perhaps most famously used by Facebook and Google, has recently come under intense scrutiny in both the public and private sectors. Apple soon will roll out prompts on iOS devices asking if a user wants to allow apps to track them. The planned feature has caused quite a feud between Apple and Facebook and their respective CEOs.
The coalition published the open letter just days before a congressional hearing with the Jack Dorsey, Sundar Pichai, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEOs of Twitter, Google, and Facebook respectively. During the hearing, Representative Anna Eshoo of California, and the congressional representative of both Pichai and Zuckerberg, stated that “Representative Schakowsky and I are doing a bill that is going to ban this business model of surveillance advertising” after calling the practice “dangerous.”
I was able to sit down and discuss the letter and Representative Eshoo’s comments with Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, the nonprofit organization behind the letter. I also got his thoughts on how the events of 2020 particularly brought the issue to the forefront of public dialogue, what he thinks about Facebook defending its surveillance by masquerading as the hero of small business owners, and what he thinks needs to happen in order for enact lasting legislation that addresses the issue effectively. You can read our conversation in its entirety below, or listen to it by playing the audio above.
What do you think about the idea of banning surveillance advertising? Drop a comment and let’s discuss!
The following text has been slightly edited for clarity.
Jesse Lehrich: Yeah, how’s it going? Thanks for having me. I’m Jesse Lehrich, as you say, co-founder of Accountable Tech. We’re a nonprofit that’s focused on holding tech accountable, as the name would suggest, with a particular interest in the information ecosystem, but spanning a lot of issues that touch that space as well. We launched last year and we’ve been hitting the ground running ever since.
EGD: Fantastic. What was your motivation behind starting the organization?
JL: Well, it’s something I’ve been super interested in for a long time. I was actually a foreign policy spokesman for Hilary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 so 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. And, it’s certainly not a vengeance type thing, but before then and certainly 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. So I just felt that it was important to do something to try and hold these companies accountable and push thing in a more democracy-friendly direction.
EGD: So what you’re saying if you’re experiencing the problem first hand than most people have?
JL: Yes. I mean, I think we’re all living it. But I was definitely living in in a very direct and day to day…
EGD: Right. Excuse me, I meant to say before most people have. There’s always been rumblings ever since Facebook and Google launched, but then it was never really highlighted until 2016, but it didn’t get the attention of all of society until this past year. But as I said, you experienced it first hand before most.
JL: Yeah, I think that’s totally right. It’s been interesting to watch people waking up. As you say, there’s been a society-wide recognition obviously with the Capitol siege on January 6th, it was something that you couldn’t really ignore anymore. But we’ve come a long way in four years, that’s for sure.
EGD: Right. So you’re organization’s letter, which can be can found on the website bansurveillanceadvertising.com and which I’ve already highlighted to my listeners and readers, it came just before a congressional hearing with the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Am I correct to assume that the timing of its release was intentional?
JL: Yeah, absolutely. Some of these hearings in the past, the most infamous one back in 2018 was sort of when you had octogenarian Senators asking Mark Zuckerberg how they can make money if they don’t charge for their product and he said, famously, “Senator, we sell ads.” But there’s been progress since then in terms of fluency levels amongst members of Congress, but still I think a lot of the hearings have taken the shape of people holding up giant poster boards of blown up tweets or whatever and yelling about “Why wasn’t this taken down?” So we’ve been eager to move the conversation away from individual pieces of content and content moderation to the underlying business model that drives so many of the harms we’re seeing today. That’s why we wanted to roll this out in advance of this last hearing. I do think, as I say, slowly but surely, we’re making progress on that front where members of Congress were drilling down on the business model and the underlying incentive structure.
EGD: Yeah. I love that you pointed to Orrin Hatch that asked that question. I actually grew up in Utah and he was my Senator my whole life until very recently when I moved out the state. I remember writing letters to him when I was in elementary school for class assignments. So it was particularly funny to me when that happened because I’ve been shaking my head at Senator Hatch my whole life.
To you’re last comment, we have seen some Senators more actively go after this business model of surveillance advertising. In that same congresional hearing with those CEOs, [Representative]* Eshoo made a comment that her and Representative Schakowsky from Illinous are planning a bill to ban surveillance advertising. Do you know if you letter had anything influence over that comment.
*I mistakenly said Senator Eshoo. She is not a Senator but a member of the House of Representatives.
JL: So I think there’s growing momentum across the board. One of the cool things about the coalition is that we have partners in Europe and have been engaging a lot with them because there’s momentum as they move forward with things such as the Digital Services Act. They’re eager to push this on that side of the pond as well. So it’s been fun to see the momentum building across the board.
And certainly Congresswoman Eshoo has been a leader on these issues for quite some time. We’ve engaged with her office previously and I knew that last year she rolled a bill to ban political micro-targeting, which is a more narrowly-targeted version of this. We gut-checked with their lead policy guy as we were laying the groundwork for this grassroots efforts just to see what kind of appetite their might on the Hill for something like this. It is pretty bold and we wanted to make sure that we were not misreading the tea leaves. So I don’t want to say we get sole responsibility or anything, and I am excited to see what the actual legislation looks like, but we did engage with them about the concept broadly. It’s exciting to see this concept hopefully be turned into legislation.
EGD: I don’t know if you’ll be allowed to say this if the answer is yes, but have they engaged with you since then as they’re writing this bill?
JL: Not necessarily on like “What do you think of this exact phrasing of legislative text.” But anytime you’re introducing legislation on something like this, it’s helpful to have support from grassroots organizations. So I think that if you’re Congresswoman Eshoo or Schakowsky it’s very encouraging to see so may groups across the spectrum lining up behind this policy. So they’re definitely eager to engage with not just us but others in the coalition and make sure that we’re loosely on the same page. Ultimately, they’re going to write the legislation and they know better than we do how to do that in the best way. But, as is typical on these kinds of things, I think that they’ll continue engaging with grassroots civil society organizations. And hopefully they’ll put something forward that’s great and we can get behind it.
EGD: Yeah. Let’s hope, right? So in your letter and on your website, you cite a survey that Accountable Tech conducted this past January. It shows that roughly 80% of 1000 registered voters surveyed are opposed to surveillance advertising. I’d like to hear more about how the survey as conducted and why you think those finding are particularly significant.
JL: Yeah, I do think they were particularly significant. I’ll candidly that those were stronger numbers than I was expecting. I thought maybe we’re get like 60/40. To be clear, in the survey it doesn’t say “Do you support surveillance advertising?” but we asked something along the lines of “Would you support Congress banning companies from using peoples’ personal data for the purposes of digital ad targeting?” It was 80% Democrats and Republicans, pretty much exactly the same levels of support across partisan lines, which was interesting. We asked a second question which I thought was particularly noteworthy. It was a pair statement. We basically quoted Facebook’s language on “relevant ads” and presented two statements. One of them being “I’d rather see relevant ads even if companies are using my personal data to target them” or “I’d rather keep my personal private even if it means seeing less relevant ads” and, again, 81% support for the first statement. That’s basically using the generous framing that Facebook has about personalization and there was still overwhelming support for privacy. So that was really encouraging to see that support across the political spectrum.
EGD: That’s awesome. Can you speak a little bit to how the survey was conducted. Did a 3rd party conduct it? Who was surveyed?
JL: It was GQR Research which is a very well respected pollster. They do a lot of political polling. We’ve been working with them dating back to last year. They work with candidate and what not as well. I think it was pretty standard, the same way they would conduct one of their political polls measuring support for Trump or Biden and what not. So pretty standard methodology for a respected pollster. Maybe you can link to the results in the post and folks can see the exact methodology.
EGD: Happy to link to those, for sure. The reason I ask the question is the tedency of some people is to write off surveys as not legitimate, so it’s good to know its sourcing.
I want to take the conversation to what we were talking about towards the beginning. It feels like this problem of surveillance advertising has particularly come to a head this past year sine the pandemic started. Can you speak a little bit to that? Do you agree with that statement? If so, why?
JL: Yeah. It’s certainly the case that these big tech companies are making more money than I’ve ever made before. Which is quite the accomplishment given their previous earnings. I think it’s just the reality of people being stuck at home and they’re spending that much more time going down YouTube rabbit holes and hanging out on Facebook and whatever social media platforms and the internet in general. So I think it’s definitely created an opportunity for these companies to take advantage of and hit people with even more digital ads. I think there may have been a little dip at the beginning with the advertisers, folks in the travel industry and what not, were saying “Maybe we’ll pull down ads for a little bit since people aren’t traveling,” but ultimately, I think there was a pretty major boom. I think Facebook and Google ended up having their most profitable years on record. And at the same time, people have been isolated and, I don’t want to tie all bad things that have happened in the world to surveillance advertising, but I think part of the reason there’s been so much attention on it is because you’ve seen everything from people running scam ads, pushing coronavirus miracle cures to Facebook running ads targeting insurrectionists with military tactical gear. So I think there’s an added aspect about the awareness and concern about the way this advertising system works because it’s been tied to so many unseemly practices.
EGD: We’re actually seeing a very interesting phenomenon happen between Apple and Facebook right now where Apple is going to roll out, if they haven’t already, the prompt of whether or not you want that app tracking you and Facebook has responded with ads saying it’s going to affect small business owners. What do you say to that? What do you say to Facebook?
JL: I say that I don’t think Facebook is quite the champion of small businesses that it presents itself as. I think that Facebook is very good at doing whatever is the most tactical play at the time, presenting themselves as whatever light they think is advantageous for them. Certainly, small businesses existed and, indeed, thrived before Facebook. We’ve actually seen less small businesses started over the last decade than ever before. Obviously I don’t blame that on Facebook, but the notion that Facebook is this god send for small businesses and, in particular, that they need to use surveillance advertising in order to support small businesses, it just doesn’t support a lot of water. I think BuzzFeed did reporting on internal communications, where it seems like even Facebook employees were rolling their eyes at this notion of Facebook as the savior of small businesses.
We speak to some of this on the website, but the reality is that Facebook and Google they charge monopoly rents for access to the digital economy. Then they turn around and say “What would small businesses do without us?” Right now, they don’t have a choice but to use these tools, but if we level the playing field I think that it will be better for small businesses, better for publishers, and maybe a little bit worse for Facebook and Google and I think that that’s ok.
EGD: Yeah. So I got two more questions for you. One, we talked about at the very beginning, but I would like to get your take, if that’s ok, as somebody who was part of the Clinton campaign and saw so closely the political effects that surveillance advertising had on our country and in turn on the world. Then four years later, when Trump lost, what his supporters, who were so vile against Clinton in 2016, did at the U.S. Capitol and continue doing online. Was the outcome that we’ve seen after the 2020 election all that surprising to you?
JL: No. I actually just wrote an op-ed for Crooked Media, not to tout any of your podcast competitors, but the Pod Save America guys are run out of Crooked Media, but I basically made that exact point: what did you think was going to happen? I do like to caveat, because I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone when we blame tech for all of our societal problems. I think that part of it is that we elected a President, perhaps with the help of Facebook, but nevertheless 60 million people voted for a President who traffics disinformation and conspiracy theories and riled up his base. But when you see a demogague-like figure with a cult-like following like Trump and his party, at least his loyal followers within in it, hyping this notion that the election was going to be rigged and then, of course, as the votes started getting counted pivoting to “Here, it’s happening. We told you it was going to happening and it’s happening!” You look at QAnon and Boogaloo and all these explicitly extreme and violent organizations that grew and recruited and were born out of the modern social media ecosystem and I just don’t know what anyone expected to happen when these people are speaking in apocalyptic terms.
I made the point in this op-ed that it’s almost a reasonable reaction if you truly believe that our democracy before your very eyes, certainly if you believe it’s being stolen by a bunch of Satan-worshipping child traffickers, as the QAnon folks would have you believe, then of course you’re going to storm the Capitol. I don’t want to say it was inevitable, but I don’t find it surprising at all. I think that not all of this a product of the ads in particular, but 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. So, a lot of times, that manifests in pushing people into more and more extreme content or connecting them with groups that support QAnon, like “This person is vaccine hesitant. Have you heard of QAnon?” They’ve just built the platforms in such a way that by virtue of optimizing for engagement at all costs to support the surveillance advertising business model, the societal costs are just enormous.
EGD: Right. Thank you so much for giving us that take. No worries at all. I don’t view other podcasts as competitors, by any means. And I will link to that op-ed, for sure.
Last question. Let’s say surveillance advertising is banned. It’s gone, it’s illegal. Do we need to have measures in place to make sure that some algorithm isn’t going to pop up that’s going to have similar effects. Or maybe not similar effects but a detrimental effect on society?
JL: First of all, I always like to say, and I say this about anything we propose, but it’s true about surveillance advertising too, that banning surveillance advertising is not a silver bullet. There is no panacea to the moment that we’re in when it comes to disinformation and extremism and surveillance. Don’t get ge me wrong, there are plenty of great things about technology and the internet. I’m not a techno-phobe and I don’t hate tech at large. But there are a lot of things that have spiraled in a way that without any check or regulation and now I find very concerning. So I don’t think there is a silver bullet and I certainly think that when you look at GDPR or CCPA in California, privacy laws that have been passed that have definitely moved the ball forward, you still see these companies that are some of the most profitable companies in the world and they’re going to continue to find – if 98% of your revenue is rooted in advertising the was Facebook is, in particular surveillance advertising, claiming to advertisers that you have greater capacity to target people by comprehensive profiles than anyone in human history, they’re going to continue to find every possible corner they can cut, loophole they can exploit. So any piece of legislation, one, needs to be very well tailored, two, needs to be cognizant of any unintended consequences, because I think that we’ve sometimes when people rush to pass tech reforms they end up having totally unintended consequences because they weren’t thought through or they’re difficult to think through, and three, I would say that even if it happens – which I would be stoked if it did – w’re going to need to continue to push for comprehensive privacy legislation to address the surveillance state more broadly. We’re probably going to have to start pushing for more algorithmic transparency and accountability so that we can understand exactly how these systems are functioning and what content they are recommending and amplifying. And I think we need antitrust solution as well because these companies are just too big and, without competition, it becomes a lot easier to exploit your users and subject them to hate speech and privacy violations and they don’t really have anywhere else to go. I think there’s a lot of work to do, but hopefully we can move the ball forward.
EGD: What would better algorithmic transparency and oversight to you look like?
JL: One example of a step in the right direction would be Twitter having opened up their API so that academic researchers can take a look under the hood and see. Facebook and YouTube are just assuring us saying “We caught 99% more hate speech than last year,” making all these self-referential claims that nobody can verify so it’s just really hard to make. And then, on the flip side, they use it to criticize the critics by saying “Oh you don’t actually understand how this all works.” Well, nobody does because nobody has access to the data! Of course policy making isn’t going to be perfectly tailored until we have access to the data to understand what the problem and what the scope of it is and then you can figure out how to address it properly.
EGD: Right. Cool, well, thank you so much for your time. I super appreciate it. I loved this conversation, it was fantastic.
JL: Same. I really appreciate the conversation and the work that you’re doing to educate folks and advocate around these issues as well.