Rep. Eshoo Reintroduces Legislation to Ban Microtargeted Political Ads

August 5, 2021
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following the news that Facebook has once again shut down efforts at transparency into political ads, U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18) announced the reintroduction of the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act, legislation to strengthen our democracy by prohibiting microtargeted political ads. The legislation has the support of over 20 leading public interest groups and leading scholars.

The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act prohibits online platforms, including social media companies, ad networks, and streaming services, from targeting political ads based on the demographic or behavioral data of users. The bill 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.

“Microtargeted political ads hurt our democracy by fracturing public forums into millions of private, unchecked silos, allowing the spread of false promises, polarizing lies, disinformation, fake news, and voter suppression,” said Rep. Eshoo. “When candidates are allowed to convey conflicting and contradictory messages to different people, it’s nearly impossible to know what candidates stand for and the American public loses the shared understanding of who they’re voting for. My bill puts an end to this pernicious practice and protects our nation’s democratic process.”

“The microtargeting of online political ads undermines the robust and wide-open debate that is central to our First Amendment values. This business practice blocks scrutiny – and counterargument – from a broader public and can lead to the spread of disinformation. Microtargeting is an important issue, and I'm very pleased to see it getting more attention,” said Ellen L. Weintraub, Commissioner, Federal Election Commission.

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

  • Mozilla
  • Common Cause
  • Open Markets Institute
  • Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)
  • Avaaz
  • Fight for the Future
  • Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
  • Accountable Tech
  • Decode Democracy
  • Access Now
  • Center for Digital Democracy
  • Joan Donovan, Research Director, Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public
  • 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
  • Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Professor Emeritus Harvard Business School
  • Karen Kornbluh and Ellen P. Goodman, Senior Fellows, Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative of the German Marshall Fund
  • Yochai Benkler, Faculty Co-Director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Professor at Harvard Law School, and author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics
  • 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
  • Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School and author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information
  • Dipayan Ghosh, Co-Director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of Terms of Disservice
  • 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
  • Julie E. Cohen, Mark Claster Mamolen Professor of Law and Technology at Georgetown Law and author of Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism
  • 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
  • G. Michael Parsons, Program Affiliate Scholar at NYU School of Law and author of “Fighting for Attention: Democracy, Free Speech, and the Marketplace of Ideas”

“Mozilla continues to believe that using personal data to micro-target organized disinformation and organic misinformation can lead to serious societal harms. While it is clear that truly solving this problem will require more holistic reform, we appreciate the broader objectives behind this legislation and commend Rep. Eshoo for her efforts in this initial but crucial regard,” said Raegan MacDonald, Director of Global Public Policy at Mozilla.

“For too long, disinformation agents have exploited social media platforms data collection practices and advertising capabilities to micro-target harmful content, particularly to marginalized communities. For example, the Trump campaign used Facebook to target millions of Black voters with deceptive information to deter them from voting. We appreciate Congresswoman Eshoo’s efforts to strengthen our democracy by prohibiting harmful microtargeting, and we hope that Congress will take further steps to rein in the harmful business practices of social media platforms,” said Yosef Getachew, Media and Democracy Program Director at Common Cause.

“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, Open Markets Institute.

“The past four years have seen a painful demonstration of the harms that can flow from unchecked misinformation campaigns that are designed to divide our nation. While there is more work to be done to bring transparency and accountability to digital political ads, the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act is a welcomed first step in updating our election laws to close a significant loophole and hold willful enablers accountable for their actions,” said Noah Bookbinder, Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

“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, Avaaz.

“The problem with Big Tech platforms is not that they host speech––even controversial speech. The problem is their surveillance capitalist business model, which harvests our personal information, weaponizes the intimate details of our actions, thoughts, and emotions, and uses that trove of data to manipulate us for profit. Banning microtargeted political advertising is one basic step toward reining in the abuses and monopoly power of giants like Facebook and YouTube, and brings us a step closer to dismantling surveillance capitalism, which is a business model fundamentally incompatible with basic human rights and democracy,” said Evan Greer, Director, Fight for the Future.

“The lack of strong privacy laws in the United States has led to system where individuals are targeted for political advertisements based on a complex web of data they don’t even know has been collected about them. The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act would prohibit this practice, banning platforms from targeting individuals with political advertisements based on their personal information. This is an important step forward in protecting Americans’ privacy and our democratic institutions. EPIC is proud to support the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act,” said Caitriona Fitzgerald, Deputy Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

“Democracy depends on common truths. But Big Tech’s surveillance advertising business model allows political campaigns to distort reality and manipulate people with incredible precision. This isn't just theoretical – we've already seen campaigns exploit these tools to intentionally suppress Black voters. Representative Eshoo’s Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act reflects the types of structural reforms needed to begin curing our information ecosystem and protecting our democracy,” said Rishi Bharwani, Director of Partnerships and Policy, Accountable Tech.

“Microtargeting is particularly dangerous when it comes to online political advertising, allowing political actors to spread harmful and divisive messaging with little transparency for voters. Decode Democracy applauds this bill for working to eliminate this serious threat to democratic debate online,” said Daniel G. Newman, President, Decode Democracy.

“The microtargeting of political ads undermines the basic tenets of a healthy democracy. As we retreat deeper into our curated filter bubbles, discerning fact from fiction is extremely difficult, fueling pernicious polarization. Microtargeting also disparately impacts marginalized people, exemplified by the discriminatory voter suppression messaging in the 2016 presidential election. This bill is a welcome step in the right to direction to address what ails the U.S. political system,” said Eric Null, U.S. Policy Manager at Access Now.

“Voters are now subjected to unprecedented online surveillance and unfair data targeting practices. Political microtargeting is fueling voter suppression, disinformation and manipulation of the electorate. Rep. Anna Eshoo’s bill will strengthen the voting rights of Americans by ensuring they are in control of their personal information – not political campaigns or giant digital platforms. By creating critically needed safeguards for federal elections in the 21st Century, Rep. Eshoo is championing the future of our democracy,” said Jeff Chester, Executive Director, Center for Digital Democracy.

“Micro-targeting is bad for a healthy information ecosystem. As research shows, digital campaigns devised by political parties, politicians, and dark money groups have been relentless in using every tool at their disposal to disrupt online discussions and malign the political process by paying platforms to send incendiary messages resulting in digital voter suppression. Leveling the playing field by limiting micro-targeting is a crucial step in creating accountability,” said Joan Donovan, Research Director, Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public.

“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 and former Chief Technologist of the Federal Trade Commission.

“Microtargeted political ads are a problem for democracy that only democracy can solve. These ad campaigns exploit the machine architectures of surveillance capitalism, including the pervasive secret collection of private information for personally invasive analyses that feed AI-driven psychological microtargeting. In politics as in commerce, the same unfair advantages of vast illegitimate concentrations of knowledge about people produce unfair power over people, robbing citizens of the right to know, to decide, and to combat. Such surveillance advertising is weaponized to engineer citizens’ behavior from afar–– undetectable and indecipherable. Microtargeted political ad campaigns have spread extremist beliefs, persuaded unsuspecting citizens not to vote, saturated the electorate with corrupt information, and more. The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act of 2021 finally begins to level the playing field between citizens and the hidden machines that only money can buy. Thank you, Representative Eshoo for the vision and courage to lead this democratic response to anti-democratic and unaccountable power. If we do not act now, the way forward to a flourishing democratic and digital future is certain to become more difficult,” said Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism; Professor Emeritus Harvard Business School.

“Representative Eshoo’s bill courageously tackles one of the biggest threats to fair elections: microtargeted political ads that exploit voters’ personal information to manipulate public opinion. Any restriction on advertising must respect free speech and also the freedom of voters to know what politicians are running on,” said Karen Kornbluh and Ellen P. Goodman, Senior Fellows, Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative of the German Marshall Fund.

“Targeted political advertising presents a serious risk to election integrity and transparent public discourse in this country. I welcome Representative Eshoo’s effort to lead the way on making sure that we bring political advertising regulation into the twenty-first century,” said Yochai Benkler, Faculty Co-Director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Professor at Harvard Law School, and author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

“Manipulative and misleading uses of personal data are common online. Microtargeting allows a candidate to be ‘all things to all people,’ and is a force multiplier for the wealthiest candidates (who can spend the most on it). The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act is designed to help citizens take back control of the public sphere. It’s a critical step toward restoring trust in political messaging. This Act also respects First Amendment values. Anyone who wants to opt-in to specific microtargeting can do so. The bill just flips the default, ensuring that the vast majority of us who do not want such ads are not exposed to them, and do not have to engage in endless opt-outs to protect ourselves from them,” said Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School and author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information.

“The unchecked collection of personal data by the dominant tech platforms fuels microtargeting, which is core to the business model at the heart of the consumer internet industry. I thank Congresswoman Eshoo for introducing legislation that puts the interests of our democracy over market incentives,” said Dipayan Ghosh, Co-Director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, author of Terms of Disservice

“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.

“Microtargeted political advertising amplifies cascades of misinformation and disinformation and worsens political polarization. The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act is an important step toward countering these pathologies,” said Julie E. Cohen, Mark Claster Mamolen Professor of Law and Technology, Georgetown Law and author of Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism.

“It used to be true that a politician could tell different things to different voters, but journalists would check whether the politician in question was saying different things to different people and write about it if they found conflicting political promises. That is impossible now because the different messages are shown privately on social media, and a given journalist only has his or her own profile. In other words, it's impossible to have oversight. The status quo, in other words, is bad for democracy. This new bill would address this urgent problem,” said 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.

“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, Program Affiliate Scholar at NYU School of Law and author of “Fighting for Attention: Democracy, Free Speech, and the Marketplace of Ideas.”

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