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Google challengers say the internet business model is broken and call for a ban on ‘surveillance advertising’

  • A group of 14 privacy-first startups called on the EU to ban ‘surveillance-based’ advertising. 
  • Already facing antitrust scrutiny, such a move would hit the likes of Facebook and Google hard.
  • Proton founder Andy Yen said such practices undermined users’ ‘fundamental right to privacy.’ 

A group of 14 tech firms hoping to challenge big tech’s dominance have signed a letter calling on the European Union to ban “surveillance-based” advertising. 

The letter, submitted on Wednesday, calls on EU legislators to “stop the invasive and privacy-hostile practices related to surveillance-based advertising” as part of the incoming Digital Services Act, regulation that will overhaul the bloc’s regulation of the internet.

The act is expected to target the growing dominance of big tech, curbing their use of data to advantage their own services.

Thanks to their billions of users worldwide, giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google have access to reams of personal data, which they can then use to refine and improve their products in ways that entrench their positions and occasionally fall foul of regulators.

Signatories of Wednesday’s letter say these practices amount to an abuse of market position, and include a host of well-known privacy-focused search engine and internet browser firms, such as DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, ProtonMail, and Vivaldi

The EU recently launched a fresh antitrust investigation into Google’s advertising practices, with competition chief Margrethe Vestager saying she was concerned that Google had “made it harder for rival online advertising services to compete” because of its dominance of the market supply chain. 

European legislators are similarly looking into claims Facebook has abused its market position to dominate online advertising, and continues to probe Amazon’s dual role as both a marketplace and retailer

“In the surveillance-based advertising model, a few actors can obtain competitive advantages by collecting data from across websites and services and dominant platform actors can abuse their positions by giving preferences to their own services,” the letter reads.

“These practices seriously undermine competition and take revenue away from content creators. Anti-competitive behaviour and its effects serve to entrench dominant actors’ positions while complex supply chains and ineffective technologies lead to lost revenues for advertisers and publishers.”

Andy Yen, CEO and founder of end-to-end encrypted email service ProtonMail, told Insider that targeted ads based on users’ personal data was an “intrusive practice which undermines user privacy as well as competition.”

“It’s a system which monetizes users’ personal data with little regard for their fundamental right to privacy,” he said.

“If lawmakers are serious about protecting privacy, fixing the broken internet business model is the best place to start.”

Insider approached Google and Facebook for comment. 

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