When the White House invoked the s-word, it gave new legitimacy to ‘surveillance’ advertising

Woman sitting a desk looking at computer screen with magnifying glasses surrounding her head.

When President Joseph Biden issued a sweeping executive order aimed at promoting competition in the American economy, tucked inside its nearly 7,000 words was a term typically associated with spy craft and foreign adversaries: surveillance.

And even though the order mentioned “unfair competitive pressures from foreign monopolies and firms that are state-owned or state-sponsored,” that’s not where the term popped up. Instead, the word “surveillance” was used solely in relation to the rise of dominant Internet platforms and consumer protection.

“The use of that word, if it doesn’t already scare people and make them want to take action they should now,” said Arun Kumar, chief data and marketing technology officer for IPG, which owns marketing data giants Acxiom and Kinesso. He called the Biden administration’s use of the term surveillance in the context of data collection “a wakeup call for brands.”

The July 9 executive order uses “surveillance” in just two places. After referencing “the aggregation of data, unfair competition in attention markets [and] the surveillance of users” in relation to big digital platforms, the order called on the Federal Trade Commission to use its existing rulemaking powers to address “unfair data collection and surveillance practices that may damage competition, consumer autonomy, and consumer privacy.” The context of the executive order — competition — and reference to the “dominant Internet platforms” offers clues regarding how the White House defines phrases like “surveillance of users” and “surveillance practices.” However, Kumar said it could signify broader application of the word in connection with all digital advertising.

“I will not be surprised if more legislators or more regulators take a cue from this order and decide that [it is appropriate to] use the word ‘surveillance’ with respect to digital advertising,” said Kumar.

The White House did not respond to a request to comment. 

Language evolution and the ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ effect

When the term “surveillance capitalism” entered the lexicon of magazine think-pieces and public radio talk shows, it came amid a wave of interest in the 2019 tome, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Harvard Business School emeritus professor Shoshanna Zuboff.

Many familiar with the intricacies of data use for marketing and digital advertising may have dismissed it as ivory tower hyperbole, or just more fodder for the same fringe critics who had fought against data-driven targeted advertising for years. But language matters, particularly because as it evolves, perceptions evolve along with it.

The s-word is slowly seeping into government parlance as a way to illustrate the effects of data collection as the source of revenue for digital businesses. When Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat representing the Silicon Valley region, admonished the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter during a March congressional hearing on disinformation, she said she planned to introduce “a bill that is going to ban this business model of surveillance advertising.” She didn’t provide any more detail on the bill and has yet to introduce it. 

More recently in Europe, advocacy groups and media outlets have employed the term “surveillance-based” ads in support of a reform to EU digital services rules that would ban ads targeted using data gleaned through online tracking. And, in a February opinion piece, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen referred to Zuboff’s book and wrote that “it is true that whenever we visit a website and are asked to create a profile or when we conveniently register with a large platform, we have no idea what happens to our data.”

“It’s not called surveillance capitalism to be melodramatic,” said Zuboff. Her book offers up a variety of definitions for “surveillance capitalism,” including “A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales.”

Instead, Zuboff told Digiday the phrase is meant to counter the “euphemistic” wordsmithing of companies whose businesses are built on data collection. “Part of what we deal with in this domain between people and the huge tech companies is a veil of euphemism where things that should not be normal are normalized,” she said. “It is meant to convey the technical requirements for these companies to produce revenue and those technical requirements begin with massive-scale, human-generated data.”

‘An intentionally pejorative term

Use of the word surveillance in the White House order is significant, Zuboff said, because it “represents the movement of thinking and comprehension on the part of our lawmakers and elected officials.” She noted the importance of the administration’s use of the term in the frame of antitrust and competition. “Just the shift in vocabulary itself tells the public that we are in a political contest here. This is a contest about power; this is not simply a contest about technology — this is corporate power.”

Use of word in the White House order is “an evolution on this recognition that consumers don’t adequately understand or consent to the advertising ecosystem,” said technologist and longtime thorn-in-the-side-of-data-driven-advertisers Ashkan Soltani, who helped craft the California Consumer Privacy Act and served in the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection.

“The word ‘surveillance’ is an intentionally pejorative term,” said Kumar, because it “paints with a common brush and says that everyone of the ecosystem is guilty.” 

The executive order implies that surveillance in the context of war and foreign intelligence gathering — something the U.S. has been engaged in for decades — is equivalent to data gathering for advertising, he said. “It’s the same U.S. government that is now saying that the term surveillance can be used in association with collection of data.” Inclusion of the word in the order, he added, “is very unfortunate because it tends to conflate certain issues and [indicates] that the administration has bought into certain approaches.”

Brands need to ‘speak up now

To be sure, lawmakers have linked government surveillance with data collection for marketing purposes before. Back in 2013, West Virginia Democrat Sen. Jay Rockefeller suggested that the National Security Agency is held to higher accountability than data brokers are. But Kumar and Soltani both said specific use of the term “surveillance” in the executive order is different, not only because it calls on the FTC to make rules in response to it. “It’s different than one senator making a comment,” said Soltani, explaining that the term “surveillance advertising” inspired by Zuboff is “now shorthand for this problem.”

There is a “big, huge distinction between the two,” said Kumar. “Why this is more meaningful than the comment about data brokers is, in a way, this sort of tends to legitimatize the use of the word ‘surveillance,'” in relation to data collection for advertising, he said.

Kumar lamented what he believes to be an absence from brands in the conversation around data collection for advertising. Legislators have “allowed the Googles and the Facebooks of the world to represent the digital ecosystem. I don’t think brands are as active as they should be,” he said, suggesting that brands need to “speak up now” about how targeted advertising supports journalism and create common industry standards for things like personal and sensitive data. 

“We have allowed the dialogue to be taken in directions where we have not explained what we truly do,” he said.


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