Leading Scholars and Organizations Announce Support for Rep. Eshoo’s Bill to Ban Microtargeted Political Ads

June 17, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, several leading experts and groups announced support for H.R. 7014, the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act, legislation introduced by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18) to strengthen our democracy by prohibiting microtargeted political ads. Leading privacy and campaign reform scholars Woodrow Hartzog, Shoshana Zuboff, Ashkan Soltani, and G. Michael Parsons, along with Mozilla, Open Markets Institute, and Avaaz, became the latest experts and organizations expressing support for the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act.

“The widespread support for the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act from leading experts and organizations is an important call for Congress to protect our elections from disinformation,” said Rep. Eshoo. “With the 2020 elections less than five months away, we must take bold steps to strengthen our democracy. Microtargeting political ads fractures our open democratic debate into millions of private, unchecked silos, allowing for the spread of disinformation, fake news, and voter suppression. We must end this pernicious business practice.”

The following groups and experts support the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act:

  • Mozilla
  • Common Cause
  • Avaaz
  • Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)
  • the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
  • the Open Markets Institute
  • the Center for Digital Democracy
  • Access Now
  • MapLight
  • Alex Stamos, Director of the Stanford Internet Observatory
  • Ambassador Karen Kornbluh and Ellen P. Goodman, senior fellows at the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund
  • Yochai Benkler, Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, professor at Harvard Law School, and author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics
  • Frank Pasquale, professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information
  • Woodrow Hartzog, Professor of Law and Computer Science at Northeastern University and author of Privacy’s Blueprint: The Battle to Control the Design of New Technologies
  • Shoshana Zuboff, Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
  • Ashkan Soltani, Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Technology Law & Policy and the Center on Privacy & Technology and former Chief Technologist of the Federal Trade Commission
  • Dipayan Ghosh, Co-Director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, author of Terms of Disservice (forthcoming), and former technology policy advisor at the White House
  • G. Michael Parsons, Acting Assistant Professor at NYU School of Law and author of “Fighting for Attention: Democracy, Free Speech, and the Marketplace of Ideas”
  • Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy and CEO of ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing firm

“Political speech is critical to democratic discourse, but organized disinformation and organic misinformation use microtargeting and prevent ideas from being debated in the open. Changing how paid political messaging works online could be a powerful step forward in response to the ongoing challenges of disinformation and manipulation of our democratic processes, whether by candidates, PACs, or others. We appreciate this legislation and the thoughtfulness of Rep. Eshoo in moving this discussion forward,” said Heather West, Head of Americas Public Policy at Mozilla.

“This bill addresses a significant issue that has plagued the last several elections: do we want our electoral candidates to use powerful microtargeting tools to be able to manipulate small groups of voters, or should they present themselves consistently across the entire electorate? Rep. Eshoo’s bill is carefully aimed at the most concerning uses of online ad targeting while retaining the rights of candidates and citizens to reach Americans online with their political messaging. I am glad to see this step in securing our elections against both domestic and foreign manipulation,” said Alex Stamos, Director of the Stanford Internet Observatory.

“Because of how often we use our phones and computers, Americans have become vulnerable to targeted manipulation like never before. The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act is a bold and important intervention to protect our public institutions and help reclaim our online spaces as places where people can flourish. Critically, this bill recognizes that certain information practices are significantly more dangerous than others. It draws a strong line by prohibiting the corrosive practice of delivering microtargeted political ads to everyone except those who desire it” said Woodrow Hartzog, Professor of Law and Computer Science at Northeastern University and author of Privacy’s Blueprint: The Battle to Control the Design of New Technologies.

“Perhaps by now we are ready as a society to agree that online targeted political advertising is a problem for democracy and therefore can only be solved by democracy. It is not and never was legitimate to cede these responsibilities to random tech executives who have consistently acted to expand and protect their own power and wealth at the expense of society. Targeted political ads are unimaginable without surveillance capitalism. They depend upon its basic mechanisms, including the pervasive  hidden surveillance of our lives and the weaponization of its private AI capabilities turned on unsuspecting users. The only effective way to counter these destructive procedures is to eliminate the financial incentives that sustain them. The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act begins this crucial work. Thank you Representative Eshoo for your vision and the courage to get us started down this road. If we do not act now, the way back toward a functioning democracy is certain to become more difficult,” said Shoshana Zuboff, Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

“With elections less than five months away, social media platforms have shown that they will not take the necessary steps on their own to protect our democracy against the manipulative microtargeting of political ads – which can too often be harmful vehicles for disinformation. Representative Eshoo’s bill to regulate microtargeting is an essential first step in defending and putting power back into the hands of American voters,” said Fadi Quran, Campaign Director at Avaaz.

“The bill proposed by Rep. Eshoo is a critical first steps to preserving the integrity of our elections and stopping the manipulation of American voters. As I previously testified, online platforms make a lot of money by renting out their manipulation machines to anyone who pays. They surveil users and then allow disinformation agents to target propaganda at users based on comprehensive and intimate data profiles. Foreign agents can easily interfere with our elections because of the targeted advertising business model. These grave threats to our democracy are not inevitable, but rather result from business choices that prioritize profits over free and fair elections," said Sally Hubbard, Director of Enforcement Strategy at Open Markets Institute.

“Manipulative political advertisements are among the most corrosive and divisive aspects of systematic microtargeting — they present a profound threat to our democracy and to our individual rights. Any action Congress takes to limit the use of consumer's personal information without consent is critical given the profound effects of this misuse across society,” said Ashkan Soltani, Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Technology Law & Policy and the Center on Privacy & Technology, former Chief Technologist of the Federal Trade Commission.

“Microtargeted political ads make a mockery of the marketplace of ideas. Instead of earning an audience through rigorous competition between ideas, advertisers buy their audience outright. Microtargeting compounds the harm by making genuine debate over this content all the less likely. Congresswoman Eshoo's bill represents the kind of structural intervention that would help counteract this anticompetitive dynamic without silencing any speaker or preventing any content from earning exposure by–to quote Justice Holmes–‘get[ting] itself accepted in the competition of the market,’” said G. Michael Parsons, Acting Assistant Professor at NYU School of Law and author of “Fighting for Attention: Democracy, Free Speech, and the Marketplace of Ideas.”

Additional quotes of support for H.R. 7014 can be found HERE.

 

Background

Rep. Eshoo introduced H.R. 7014, the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act, on May 26th. The bill prohibits online platforms, including social media, ad networks, and streaming services, from targeting political ads based on the demographic or behavioral data of users. H.R. 7014 applies to all electioneering communications and advocacy for candidates, and violations will be enforced by the Federal Election Commission and through a private right of action. Targeting ads to broad geographies – states, municipalities, and congressional districts – is permitted under the bill, as is targeting individuals who opt in to receive targeted ads.

Microtargeting is enabled by the vast and unchecked use of behavioral and demographic information by online platforms, data brokers, and many other companies. A vast majority of Americans, 69% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans, oppose the use of personal information for microtargeting political ads, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Rep. Eshoo has long called for a strong federal privacy law and introduced H.R. 4978, the Online Privacy Act, which is widely recognized by advocates, experts, and academics as the strongest privacy bill introduced in Congress. Rep. Eshoo also introduced H.R. 6866, the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act, a bicameral bill that protects civil liberties and privacy of coronavirus-related sensitive information.

To read a copy of the legislation, click HERE.

To read a section-by-section summary of the legislation, click HERE.