Personalised ads are a large part of what powers the internet as we experience it today. In fact by the time you’ve come to read this sentence you have probably already been targeted with hundreds, if not thousands, of personalised ads today, based on personal information or inferences about you - some of them deeply personal.
Tech companies claim that people like receiving personalised ads. In Facebook’s own words: “personalized advertising provides the best experience for people...Personalized ads help people access services, discover new products, and receive deals from the brands they care about.”
This is one side of the story. But we’re concerned that personalisation relies on invasive surveillance and the way that these ads are used can have a damaging effect on society. In recent years targeted ads have been implicated in the polarisation of communities, the spread of disinformation and the suppression of votes. The fact that only some of us get to see those ads on our personal newsfeeds or searches limits our ability to challenge the messages and promises they make, inhibiting democratic debate. And for all ads, whether political or commercial, there are serious questions about how people’s data rights and right to privacy are infringed by the surveillance and profiling required to make the tech work.
So we wanted to find out, are people really happy with this type of ad ‘experience’ offered by platforms like Facebook?
The answer: not so much.
We commissioned YouGov to ask over 2,000 regular social media users in France and Germany in February 2021 about their attitudes to the personalisation of their online experience.
Our new polling reveals people are uneasy about the way they are profiled and targeted with ads.
We asked people about the routine ways they are targeted by advertisers every day - from being categorised by income, religious views, and even by life events such as pregnancy, bereavement, or illness. Overwhelmingly people felt deeply uncomfortable about the targeting categories and didn’t think they should be allowed.
We also asked people about the different sources of data that can be used to target them with ads - ranging from the information they volunteer to social media platforms on their profiles, to their behaviour on the platform and even their online activity while not on social media. There’s growing controversy about how we’re tracked online, with users relentlessly pursued by advertisers to complete their purchases and ads creepily attuned to our past browsing. A clear majority of the people we polled in France and Germany don’t think it should be possible to target ads based on this type of surveillance.
When we asked people if they want to receive personalised ads we found a majority (57%) don’t want to receive any - whether political or commercial - and a further 26% don’t want to receive targeted political ads. Only 11% of people said that they were happy with their personal data being used to target them with ads.
For political ads, people saw particular risks. 44% of respondents said they believe targeted political ads hinder democracy - rising to 50% when looking just at the results from France.
A big part of the problem is that much of the profiling and ad targeting process happens behind the scenes. People are largely unaware of how their data is being collected and used. All too often, users’ consent for these processes is bundled up in lengthy terms and conditions, where it is unlikely - if not impossible - for it to be given meaningfully.
The imperative to engage users and keep them online in order to mine them for more data risks a backlash. Our polling found that for those respondents who wanted to spend less time on social media, too much time spent online was cited as the leading reason. Over a third of these respondents listed misinformation as a reason.
We believe tech companies should operate to higher standards, empowering users’ to have more control over how their data is used and with clear limits on intrusive surveillance and profiling. The EU has a unique opportunity to tackle these issues by making sure existing privacy rules are enforced and by bringing in new rules via the Digital Services Act (DSA). We’re calling on Members of the European Parliament to amend the DSA to ensure users can see all the ways they've been targeted and prevent surveillance overreach.
We found respondents in France and Germany are supportive of new requirements for tech companies, with:
74% saying social media companies' algorithms should be independently audited to make sure that they don't contribute to the spread of disinformation, hate or discrimination;
44% saying social media companies should provide more information on online advertising - including who paid for it and how it has been targeted.
Our poll provides only a snapshot of people’s concerns over targeted ads in France and Germany, but should give legislators pause over any assumption that people want personalisation at all costs. With major elections coming up in both countries within the next year, as well as the immediate legislative opportunity presented by the Digital Services Act, there is little time to waste.
Technical note: Global Witness commissioned YouGov to conduct the survey amongst 2,034 regular social media users (past 30 days) in France and Germany, which was carried out online between 24 February and 1 March 2021. Full results available here.