AdTech is watching you!

The reality is that AdTech target mothers who just had stillbirths with baby ads, and serial gamblers who are trying to quit with gambling ads, or simply send creepy ads. 

By Open Rights Group (ORG) (guest author) · May 5, 2021

On 22 April 2021, EDRi members Open Rights Group, Panoptykon Foundation, and  Civil Liberties Union for Europe, launched a new campaign to #StopStalkerAds. The campaign follows an open letter to the European Parliament sent in conjunction with 30 Civil Society Organisations asking the European Union to introduce new legislation that effectively cracks down on illegal advertising and online tracking.

Because Adtech is stalking you

The Adtech industry built an extensive infrastructure made of online trackers embedded in website plugins, social media buttons, videos, web fonts, software development kits and many other things. This means that websites struggle not to track their visitors even if they want to: it only takes a youtube video, a Facebook login option, or a like button to share your addictions, disabilities or financial difficulties with this pervasive tracking infrastructure.

On the other hand, cookie banners, dark patterns and cookie walls are extensively being used to depict pervasive tracking as something you consented to. The Adtech industry reassures us that they are doing it for the sake of Small and Medium Businesses, as well as to show relevant ads to you. However, the reality is that they target mothers who just had stillbirths with baby ads, and serial gamblers who are trying to quit with gambling ads, or simply send creepy ads

The fact that those mothers end up writing open letters against big tech companies, or that serial gamblers are suing those advertisers, definitely cast some doubts over the alleged “consent” the tracking industry relies on. Indeed, what they do, looks a lot like stalking — that is, following and watching somebody over a long period of time in a way that is annoying or frightening.

ePrivacy to the rescue

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as the name may suggest, sets forth general obligations that every organisation has to comply with when processing our personal information. These obligations are also framed flexibly, leaving the task to clarify how these requirements apply in practice to data protection authorities and Courts.

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The importance of the ePrivacy Regulation can be fully appreciated if you consider that Adtech companies used this flexibility to buy time for themselves and keep debating about the legal interpretation of their obligations. The ePrivacy Regulation is an opportunity to clarify some of these aspects, and could strengthen online privacy by:

  • making it clear that online tracking is never allowed without consent, for any reason;
  • banning cookie walls, and prohibiting websites to deny you access if you don’t consent to online tracking;
  • allowing you to express legally binding choices in software settings that are designed to put users in control of their data, as opposed to cookie banners that are designed to deceive you and put Adtech companies in control of our data.

It is time to raise our voice

The ePrivacy Regulation has been targeted by extensive lobbying efforts, that resulted in its approval being slowed down, and the rules above-mentioned being watered down by the Council of the EU. However, the debate has now moved to trilogue negotiations, where the European Parliament can weigh in and reassert the position they adopted in 2017

This is where ORG’s campaign comes into play: if you are an EU citizen you can join the campaign, spread the voice, and ask your representatives to #StopStalkerAds.

(Contribution by: EDRi’s member Open Rights Groups)