Karlin Lillington: Ban all indiscriminate data gathering

Online advertising ‘an almost completely unregulated environment’ with no transparency

Twitter’s recent announcement that it will ban election ads for candidates and issues has been opposed by some who argue that a better option would be to allow political ads, but ban microtargeted political ads.

If you use the internet, then you've been microtargeted. Microtargeted ads are served to you based on the data a particular website (such as Amazon), social media site (such as Facebook. Instagram or Twitter) or search platform (such as Google or Bing) might have on you, or shared to third parties.

That information is a mix of the basic (gender, location, age) and the detailed (purchasing history, links you click on, keywords in your posts, online searches, who your social media friends are and their own interests … basically, all your online actions you never think about).

Based on some combination of your data – analysed in microseconds – sites then aim to show you an ad – again within microseconds – for a product or service or issue your data says you are most likely to find engaging. It’s an automated race to purchase your eyeballs for the brief seconds in which you might check your Facebook feed, tweet, read a news story or look for a new pair of shoes.


The proposal to allow political ads, but ban microtargeted ads, has the premise that if all people saw the same ads, ads full of distortions and lies could be adequately countered.

Or, on the other hand, you could be Facebook, and continue to defend microtargeted political ads (a growing income stream already worth hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue) with insulting bromides about protecting “free speech’’. Even if it’s totally hidden speech, out of view of the very people most likely to identify falsehoods. Dear citizen, it’s your task to “decide for yourself” even if you alone see the ad, and are provided no clarifying debate.

So, the Facebook option can be set aside as ridiculously undemocratic.

As Dr Katherine O’Keefe, data consultant at Castlebridge and co-author of Ethical Data & Information Management notes: “Microtargeting of political speech suppresses the possibility of public debate, undermining the freedom of expression essential to our democracy. We cannot have an open discussion with our fellow citizens if the selective delivery of differing narratives undermines the marketplace of ideas.”

But running any kind of political ad is deeply problematical. Online advertising internationally "is an almost completely unregulated environment [with] an absence of transparency. Electoral bodies around the world have not been able to track who has spent what, on which platform, or pushed which messages online," according to Dr Jane Suiter, director of Dublin City University's institute for future media and journalism (FuJo), which recently published ElectCheck 2019, a report on political advertising online during the 2019 European elections.


Suiter said data released to researchers by Google, Twitter and Facebook provided little detail on microtargeting criteria, and was so vague overall that the study authors could provide answers to only six of the nine general questions posed for the study by the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services.

In fully banning political ads of any sort, Twitter has therefore taken the only adequate response in the current weak regulatory environment that allows a virtual free-for-all for advertisers.

Meanwhile, just days after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar expressed doubt over whether Twitter's ad ban was the right direction to take, the Government proposed new legislation on Tuesday to regulate online political ads in Ireland.

The proposed legislation would require such ads be clearly identified as political by the ad placer. But TDs: please cast an eye across the Irish Sea. Ongoing UK investigations into a wide range of slippery online Brexit campaign ads that were never – as required – identified as such, indicates such laws are easily flouted, with (to date) little retribution from authorities after the fact, and the vote decided.

Twitter’s total ban, better than other current options, nonetheless is likely to encounter related problems. When is an ad “political”? And what about the partisan content farms that churn out supposed political “news” on candidates and issues, amplified through fake accounts, trolls and bot networks (and … politicians)? Are those “ads”?


Social network content algorithms, which are interlinked with and reward the same clickbait premises that drive online microtargeted advertising, will hasten the spread of such microtargeted content, with all the same problems of nontransparency, disinformation and manipulation.

There’s a far better approach to all of this. Just disallow all indiscriminate data gathering, ban sales of data to third parties, and ban microtargeting. Full stop. Everywhere online. For everything.

This would be a huge step in resolving some of the internet’s worst problems: the exploitation of personal privacy, the dominance of surveillance capitalism, the end of hidden “dark ads”, the manipulation of every internet user. And, crucially, such a total ban would rebuild stronger foundations for democracy and the electoral process worldwide.