ProtonMail, DuckDuckGo, others ask EU & US regulators to ban surveillance-based advertising
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Catalin Cimpanu July 7, 2021

ProtonMail, DuckDuckGo, others ask EU & US regulators to ban surveillance-based advertising

ProtonMail, DuckDuckGo, others ask EU & US regulators to ban surveillance-based advertising

  • Group of 14 privacy-focused organizations sign open letter denouncing surveillance-based advertising.
  • Group includes the likes of Vivaldi, ProtonMail, DuckDuckGo, Startpage, and others.
  • Second initiative asking for a ban on intrusive ads in the past two weeks.

A group of privacy-first tech companies, including the likes of ProtonMail, DuckDuckGo, Vivaldi, Tutanota, and Startpage, have published an open letter today asking EU and US regulators to take action and ban surveillance-based advertising.

Surveillance-based advertising refers to a common practice in the advertising industry where companies amass large quantities of personal identifiers, which they then use to track users across the web, including across platforms and devices, in order to deliver highly customized ads.

The practice has been in use for almost two decades and has been widely criticized, and has led to the rise of ad blockers as a response from users looking to preserve their privacy.

Surveillance-based advertising and its many problems

In an open letter today, some of the companies that formed as a pushback against intrusive user tracking are making the case that surveillance-based advertising should be prohibited via legislative actions.

The signatories argue that this type of online advertising causes problems not only to a user’s personal liberties, such as their right to privacy, but also damages competition in the advertising ecosystem.

For example, surveillance-based advertising allows bad actors and abusive companies to hide among legitimate industry players.

This is because only a few “dominant players” are in a position to track users across websites, a position that some companies have abused to give preference to their own services but also to manipulate markets and prices.

“Anti-competitive behavior and effects serve to entrench dominant actors’ positions while complex supply chains and ineffective technologies lead to lost revenues for advertisers and publishers,” said Jon von Tetzchner, CEO of Vivaldi Technologies, maker of the Vivaldi browser.

“These practices seriously undermine competition and take revenue away from content creators. […] This harms consumers and businesses and can undermine the cornerstones of democracy,” he added.

The open letter’s signatories include:

  • Vivaldi Technologies, Jon von Tetzchner, CEO & Tatsuki Tomita, COO
  • Fastmail Pty Ltd, Bron Gondwana, CEO
  • Conva Ventures Inc., dba. Fathom Analytics, Jack Ellis & Paul Jarvis, Directors
  • Proton Technologies AG, Dr. Andy Yen, CEO
  • Tutao GmbH, dba. Tutanota, Matthias Pfau, Co-Founder and CEO
  • DuckDuckGo, Inc., Gabriel Weinberg, Founder and CEO
  • Disconnect Inc., Casey Oppenheim, Co-founder and CEO
  • Mojeek Limited, Colin Hayhurst, CEO
  • Ecosia GmbH, Christian Kroll, CEO
  • Startpage & StartMail, Robert E.G. Beens, Co-Founder and CEO
  • Nextcloud GmbH, Frank Karlitschek, Founder and CEO
  • Kobler, Erik Bugge, CEO
  • Strossle International, H kon Tillier, CEO & Rickard Lawson, CMO
  • Mailfence, Patrick De Schutter, Co-Founder and Managing Director

Similar efforts to ban surveillance-based advertising

The open letter comes exactly two weeks after the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC), an independent Norwegian consumer protection organization, put out a similar call on June 23, asking EU and US authorities to take steps against surveillance-based advertising.

Besides the reasons listed in the Vivaldi&co open letter, NCC also argued that surveillance-based advertising could be used to manipulate the public and discriminate at scale and to launch cyber-attacks and defraud, spy, or infect selected user groups with malware.

Another similar effort comes from the Ban Surveillance Advertising, a coalition of tens of NGOs from across the world that began operating in March this year, and which also asked government leaders through an open letter to ban surveillance advertising, citing past cases where targeted advertising platforms helped promote fringe conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine campaigns, and radical groups that threatened their countries’ democracies.

Today’s open letter is part of a constant pressure put on officials to look into the practice. In the EU, where privacy rights are taken more seriously than the US, these lobby efforts have resulted in both the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and the European Parliament open official inquiries into targeted ads and modern ad-tech practices where data is dogpiled and used without restrictions or second thoughts of user privacy.

A staunch critic of surveillance-based advertising has been Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has used the fact that Apple does not run an ad-tech branch to attack rivals for their practices and promote Apple products as more private alternatives to similar offerings from competitors.

Catalin Cimpanu is a cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He previously worked at ZDNet and Bleeping Computer, where he became a well-known name in the industry for his constant scoops on new vulnerabilities, cyberattacks, and law enforcement actions against hackers.