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Targeted Ads Be Gone

What Europe's proposed ban and the Digital Services Act could mean for American kids and families

For years, European policymakers have taken a more aggressive stance against Big Tech than those in the U.S. Just last month, the European Parliament voted to approve its position on the Digital Services Act, the next step forward for a hefty piece of legislation focused on online content moderation -- a hot topic in the U.S. But developments in Congress could signal, finally, a closer alignment on tech policy across the Atlantic. That would be good for kids, families, and our country.

The Digital Services Act, or DSA, is one of two landmark legislative initiatives currently on the docket in the European Union. The other proposal, the Digital Markets Act (DMA), introduces special measures -- interoperability and a ban on self-preferencing, for example -- to protect online business from so-called large online platforms called "gatekeepers."

The DSA, meanwhile, would increase online safety and platform accountability by forcing large companies like Facebook and Google to:

  • Remove illegal content from sites once it has been flagged.
  • Stop designing sites that manipulate users into sharing data.
  • Create consistent, transparent, and clear policies regarding algorithmic curation and content moderation.
  • Perform regular assessments that evaluate products based on society-wide "systemic risk."

These tools are critical in slowing the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech, which have contributed to everything from falsehoods about COVID vaccines to increases in racial and ethnic discrimination found online. The DSA would help stop the increase in exposure to hate speech that Common Sense has observed among young internet users.

One of the most important components of the DSA, recently approved by a sizable majority in the European Parliament, is a ban on the use of personal information to display targeted advertisements. The ban would apply to all data obtained about minors, and particularly sensitive data, like race and religion, obtained about anyone. The DSA also now includes a provision that platforms must give users an option to change browser settings so they can opt out of certain tracking practices.

Targeted advertisements are bad for people of all ages. Also known as "surveillance advertising," these ads rely on tracking individuals to build behavioral profiles that platforms can use to sell more stuff and mine more data. This toxic chain is largely responsible for the unchecked amplification of hate speech and misinformation undermining our social fabric, public health, and democratic systems.

We have found that targeted ads are particularly bad for kids. Picture a 10-year-old boy using a smartphone to scroll through games and videos. These innocent searches become data points that platforms collect and share with advertisers. By the time he is 13, advertisers will have some 72 million data points on him. They will use this massive data set to bombard him with consumption ads and lure him toward potentially harmful products -- think fast food and gambling, alcohol and tobacco. Surveillance advertising feeds an unhealthy digital diet to kids across the world, every day.

What's more, given their still-developing brains, children and teens are highly vulnerable to such manipulative advertising. Most kids under eight years old cannot even identify ads, and three out of four kids age 8–11 can't distinguish between advertising and other content online. Advertisers, and the platforms they pay, recognize this vulnerability and exploit it for profit. They do so at great cost to our youth and little gain to their bottom line.

Though we are based in the United States, Common Sense has worked diligently in Europe to help put an end to this deceptive, harmful practice. When the European Commission opened a consultation for the DSA in 2020, we recommended a limit on targeted ads. We sent letters to Members of the European Parliament in support of a targeted ads ban. We also joined with fifty other organizations to support the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue's call to action against the widespread tracking and data mining tactics of online advertising.

With its proposed ban on targeted ads for minors and its general mandate that online platforms put the child's best interests first, the DSA could stand as a huge victory for children and parents -- but only those in the European Union.

Americans will not experience the benefits of such safeguards until lawmakers in our nation's capital take action. To start, they could join the European Parliament in banning surveillance ads that target kids.

Fortunately, some in Congress are ready to act. And they would have the backing of the American people -- four out of five support a general ban on surveillance advertising.

Senator Booker (D-N.J.), Representative Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Representative Schakowsky (D-Ill.), for example, just introduced the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act to prohibit most targeted ads. I also gave a strong statement in support of the bill. Two other bills -- the bipartisan Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act, referred to as COPPA 2.0, and the Protecting the Information of Our Vulnerable Children and Youth Act (Kids PRIVCY Act) -- would improve outdated children's privacy law and include a ban on child-facing targeted ads.

There is also interest in Maryland, where the proposed Maryland Online Consumer Protection and Child Safety Act would weaken the impact of targeted advertising through enhanced privacy protections for children and teens. Common Sense has testified in support of the bill.

To be fair, the DSA and its new amendments still have a long road ahead as negotiations begin with the European Council. But Parliament has made its position on targeted ads clear.

In doing so, Europeans have taken a bold and necessary first step toward enshrining legal safeguards against the profit-centric data exploitation of Big Tech. This year, U.S. lawmakers and the Biden administration have the opportunity to enact similar -- or even stronger -- laws to protect our most vulnerable groups, children and teens, on the tech platforms they use daily.

By banning targeted ads for children, our allies abroad are showing themselves to be the good parents -- the responsible adults in the digital room. What are we waiting for?

For more on international privacy and child protection law, check out Common Sense's Global Tech Policy Comparative Report.

Jim Steyer

Jim is Common Sense Media's CEO and founder -- read all about him here.