Search Engine Optimisation

Marketers, Google agree that proposed ‘surveillance advertising’ ban goes too far

A new bill, the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act (BSAA), was introduced by Democrat lawmakers on Tuesday. The bill would no longer allow advertisers to target ads to consumers, with only a couple of exceptions.

Those exceptions: broad, location-based targeting and contextual ads.

Why the legislation was introduced. “Disinformation, discrimination, voter suppression, privacy abuses,” and other harms were cited by California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, the lead sponsor of the bill, as the reasoning behind pushing this legislation forward. 

Privacy search engine DuckDuckGo tweeted its support of the bill, saying that “The collection of your private data to target you w/ads violates your privacy & leads to discrimination, manipulation, & disinformation.”

In short, the lawmakers want to stop allowing advertisers to “exploit” and profit from the data collected from consumers.

Google’s response. Google’s take was both predictable and apparent from the title of the blog post it published: “The harmful consequences of Congress’s anti-tech bills.” This was in reference to this legislation, as well as other antitrust bills pending in the Senate this week (the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act).

How might all of this impact Google search? The end result would be lower-quality search results, Google said. For example, the company warned that the proposed legislation would prevent it from:

  • Showing directions from Google Maps in its search results. 
  • Providing answers to urgent questions.
  • Highlighting business information when someone searches for a local business.
  • Integrating its products (e.g., Gmail, Calendar, Docs). 

Industry says the bill goes too far. The general consensus seems to be that the bill won’t (or at least shouldn’t) pass in its current state and won’t actually accomplish what lawmakers want — and would have serious consequences for the marketing industry.

“This bill, if passed in its current form, would set the entire advertising infrastructure back 5-10 years,” said Matt Van Wagner, president at Find Me Faster, “Essentially, it will make online advertising more akin to billboards, menu mats at Cracker Barrel and perfume inserts in magazines.”

Susan Wenograd, VP, performance marketing at Marpipe, said the bill is well-intentioned. However, the idea that the user would have no say in how their personal information is used swings the pendulum widely into the other direction, she noted. 

“It removes personalization from advertising under the assumption users want no tracking,” Wenograd said. “As with many things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

Wenograd added that the BSAA seems like it’s also perpetuating the issue of a powerless user: “They’re trying to combat users being powerless to stop data from being tracked…by making them powerless to decide.”

“I do think a large part of the problem is there’s no easy or good user experience for how people give that kind of permission,” Wenograd said. “In my mind, that’s really the larger problem — everything, including this, is a very black-and-white approach to something that is nuanced by human behavior and preferences.”

Melissa Mackey, associate director at MerkleB2B, agreed that losing the ability to intelligently target users based on browsing history or other ad identifiers will hurt the effectiveness of marketing.

“Claims in the legislation that ‘targeted ads only yield a 4% bump in efficacy for advertisers over contextual ads’ are probably based on advertisers who are doing targeting poorly,” Mackey said. “I have personally experienced yields far above 4% when targeting is done correctly.”

Mackey was also troubled that this legislation will curtail the use of custom audiences — lists made up of customer emails or other identifiers.

“This would indeed be a huge blow to advertisers who are currently using such lists with great success, tailoring their marketing message to specific audience needs,” she said. “Ultimately, this legislation is the result of lazy marketers. If we’d been more careful with our targeting, perhaps this all could have been avoided.”

Why we care. Legislation like this could be a game-changer for every digital marketer who advertises on Google, Facebook and other advertising platforms. While a bill is not a law, and this may never make it to that stage, it’s important to follow major proposals like this as it could radically change your strategies, the way you target ads and how you measure performance. Ad targeting has come a long way in recent years — so legislation like this could potentially take us back to a new Dark Age of marketing where we have less data and less insight into the audience we want to reach. 


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About The Author

Danny Goodwin is Senior Editor of Search Engine Land. In addition to writing daily about SEO, PPC, and more for Search Engine Land, Goodwin also manages Search Engine Land’s roster of subject-matter experts. He also helps program our conference series, SMX – Search Marketing Expo.

Prior to joining Search Engine Land, Goodwin was Executive Editor at Search Engine Journal, where he led editorial initiatives for the brand. He also was an editor at Search Engine Watch. He has spoken at many major search conferences and virtual events, and has been sourced for his expertise by a wide range of publications and podcasts.


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