How online ads discriminate

The risks and harms that are associated with hyper-targeted online ads have been widely documented. Yet, the same amount of attention has not been shown to the many ways in which harms and risks of online advertising are unequally distributed, and how targeted online advertising can have discriminatory effects. This is the focus of EDRi’s newly launched report.

The risks and harms that are associated with hyper-targeted online ads have been widely documented. Yet, the same amount of attention has not been shown to the many ways in which harms and risks of online advertising are unequally distributed, and how targeted online advertising can have discriminatory effects. This is the focus of EDRi’s newly launched report.

“The pandemic has had a devastating effect on people struggling with eating disorders, and media reports show that those who are in recovery or struggling with an eating disorder are finding diet ads on platforms like TikTok or Instagram distressing.”

The first online banner ad appeared in 1994, which worked similar to billboards that appear next to highways, or advertising pages in print magazines. Much has changed since then. Today, hyper-targeted online ads have become ubiquitous. They appear in social media stories, in social media feeds, in video content, on apps, next to news stories and on a significant share of the world’s websites, blogs and publishers’ sites.

From widespread data exploitation that is virtually impossible to avoid, to a lack of accountability in the data supply chain, targeted ads raise fundamental rights concerns, issues around consumer protection, as well as broader societal harms. On top of all of this, there is little evidence that the amount of tracking and the invasiveness with which most ads are targeted today actually makes them more relevant to those who see them.

One issue, however, that has not received the same amount of attention is the many ways in which harms and risks of online advertising are unequally distributed, and how targeted online advertising can have discriminatory effects. This is the focus of EDRi’s newly launched report “How online ads discriminate: Unequal harms of online advertising in Europe”.

Part of this process is also an acknowledgement that digital rights violations often disproportionately affect those who are already marginalised. The focus on discrimination in online advertising is timely, because the European Commission is embarking on an ambitious plan to regulate tech companies and shape the direction of Europe’s digital transformation.

Donate to EDRi to build a people-centered, democratic digital future. Donate Now

New or strengthened rules for digital advertising could be implemented in the Digital Services Act (DSA), the EU Regulation on Artificial Intelligence, the Democracy Action Plan, the ePrivacy Regulation, and the Digital Markets Act.

Tackling discrimination, specifically in online advertising, has also become more urgent. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means that many people’s work and private lives have entirely moved online, amplifying the negative effects of targeted ads, especially for marginalised groups and people in vulnerable situations.

EDRi’s newly launched publication is one of the few pieces of research that delves into how discrimination occurs in Ad targeting, providing evidence of this practice in Europe. The booklet also makes recommendations to policymakers on stopping ad tech discrimination by strengthening regulatory authorities, a full investigation into discrimination in online advertising in Europe, sweeping reform of online advertising and much more.

(Contribution by:)

Gail Rego

Senior Communications and Media Manager

Twitter: @Gail4impac