It’s not just a phase: consumers want less surveillance

Person typing on a laptop

On 24 May 2022, EPIC presented the EPIC International Privacy Champion Award to TACD’s Norwegian member group Forbrukerrådet (the Norwegian Consumer Council) for its outstanding and influential work crafting substantive reports on the scope and impact of surveillance advertising and online data collection.

Forbrukerrådet’s reports have played a prominent role in driving surveillance advertising and online data collection reform globally and solidified their reputation as true leaders for the consumer rights movement in Europe. This award recognizes Forbrukerrådet’s continued efforts to safeguard privacy and protect democratic values worldwide.

Consumers are exploited by the adtech industry

In January 2020, the Norwegian Consumer Council published their report “Out of Control”, in which they demonstrate how every time consumers use their phones, a large number of shadowy entities that are virtually unknown to consumers are receiving personal data about our interests, habits, and behaviour.

Surveillance has become a central element of the digital economy. Platforms like Facebook or Google build their business on the back of amassing personal data, resulting in the expansive use of mechanisms to collect, identify, track, classify, sort, discriminate, and discard online profiles to deliver hyper personalized targeted ads. The structure of the surveillance advertising industry acts against the fundamental right to privacy and equal opportunity and increases the risks of cybersecurity breaches and data leaks due to the volume of data processed.

The Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue and its 70+ members in Europe and the U.S. have recently launched a call for a full ban on surveillance-based advertising based on:

  1. The high risk of causing harm to individuals, groups, communities, and society at large
  2. The inability of consumers to reasonably avoid being tracked through and for surveillance-based advertising
  3. The inability of current and proposed mechanisms to address the damaging externalities that surveillance advertising produces
  4. The lack of benefits to individuals, groups, communities, and society at large compared to the harms

Transatlantic cooperation for stronger consumer rights

With the help of international networks such as BEUC – The European Consumer Organisation, European Digital Rights (EDRi), and TACD over 40 consumer, human rights and digital rights groups backed the report and following complaints by the Norwegian Consumer Council at an international level. Groups in Europe and the United States sent letters to policymakers and regulators across the world urging them to take action in this space.

Time to walk the talk: where is the enforcement?

Following the publication of a report in June 2021, the Norwegian Consumer Council – together with 55 organizations and more than 20 experts – is asking authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to consider a ban. In Europe, the Digital Services Act can lay the legal framework to do so. In the U.S., legislators should seize the opportunity to enact comprehensive privacy legislation that protects consumers.

The coordinated push behind the report and letter illustrates the growing determination of consumer, digital rights, human rights and other civil society groups to end the widespread business model of spying on the public.

The daily data sharing needs to stop to avoid disastrous consequences for our societies. In most countries, enforcement of consumer rights and the protections they are entitled to under the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe has not followed.

Governments need to give enforcement agencies the resources to do their job. This includes hiring more people with technical expertise for example. We need to speed up enforcement in both consumer, competition and data protection law, as well as better cross-border enforcement mechanisms.