Press Releases

Ban surveillance advertising to protect kids online

820 million digital profiles of UK children are being shared with online advertisers every day to serve them personalised ads


The government should ban surveillance advertising to protect children online, according to research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF), commissioned by Global Action Plan (GAP) and published today. The research estimates that at least 820m digital profiles of UK children are being broadcast over online advertising networks every day in order to serve them personalised ads.

The report finds that this surveillance advertising system exposes personal data – including children’s personal data – to data leaks and incentivises tech giants like Google and Facebook to gather as much data about internet users as possible.

The research finds that the current way that ads are shown online, which involves a complex auction system using people’s personal data, causes harm to children, and has been accused of contravening UK data protection legislation. Internet users’ everyday online activity, including children’s, is tracked and recorded. Big tech companies buy and sell this tracking data in order to build detailed profiles about users to target them with ads. When internet users visit a webpage, their personal information is sent to an automated auction network where companies instantaneously bid to show them ads.

The report concludes that the best way to keep children safe from the sale of their personal data on the internet is to ban all online advertising which targets users based on personal data. This would protect children’s privacy online without resorting to age verification systems, which can rely on gathering personal, sensitive or biometric data.

In 2019, NEF found that on average 164 of these auctions happen to each person in the UK every day, with their data seen by potentially thousands of ad-tech companies. Today’s new analysis from NEF finds that around 820m digital profiles of UK children are auctioned every day in order to sell ads. In addition, research from GAP has found that teenagers see an ad every ten seconds on Instagram, amounting to 420 ads an hour.

The report outlines that, as children are known to be more susceptible to advertising and have less ability to understand when they are being advertised to, adverts shown on television or in print media have to follow strict rules about how they can advertise to children. But, the report notes, when it comes to online ads these rules do not apply.

Therefore report recommends introducing a complete ban on surveillance advertising, which would:

  • Stop children from being targeted by ads which use their personal data. This would prevent an estimated 820m digital profiles of UK children being sent through the advertising auction process every day.
  • Reduce data leaks by halting the sharing of personal data through complex ad-selling networks.
  • Reduce the incentive for big tech companies to gather, store, sell or share as much personal data about users as possible.
  • Protect children’s privacy online without resorting to age verification systems, which rely on gathering personal, sensitive or biometric data.
  • Place responsibility for protecting children online onto tech companies themselves, rather than parents and guardians.

Instead of relying on surveillance advertising, ad companies would target consumers based on contextual information about website. Websites would be able to only share information from a green list’ of acceptable data. The report argues that a complete ban on surveillance advertising is the best way to protect children from data gathering.

Duncan McCann, senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation, said:

Today, one in three internet users are children. And during the pandemic, kids have been stuck at home spending more time online. This has meant our children have been exposed to even more data collection, profiling and surveillance ads. For under-13s this practice is meant to be heavily restricted, but the safety measures to prevent it aren’t fit for purpose. The government needs to stop the internet from spying on our kids in order to track and advertise to them. The only winners of the surveillance advertising system are the ad tech companies themselves. These companies profit at the expense of children, wider society and even online publishers.”

Oliver Hayes, policy and campaigns lead at Global Action Plan, said:

Almost every harm that children face online is linked to surveillance advertising, a business model that keeps people hooked on their devices so they can be served more ads.

There is no moral case for tracking a child’s every move online in order to boost ad revenue, even were the practice harmless. But it isn’t harmless. Pummelling kids with invasive ads fuels compare and despair’, undermines wellbeing, and embeds hyper-consumerism which damages mental health as well as the planet.

Our laws don’t allow kids to be spied on for profit in the real world so why don’t we protect them in the digital world? The government’s new Online Safety Bill will provide little online safety – for children or anyone else – unless it is amended to specifically outlaw surveillance advertising.”

Rasha Abdul Rahim, Director of Amnesty Tech at Amnesty International said:

Surveillance advertising inflicts an incredible amount of harm on children, who are particularly vulnerable to the inherently manipulative power of marketing. Google, Facebook, and other technology companies pose an enormous threat to human rights with their very business models built on ubiquitous and constant surveillance. Children are left at the mercy of the companies’ increasingly sophisticated algorithms, designed to capture their attention and keep them staring at their screens for as long as possible. Such manipulation can have a devastating impact on their wellbeing and rights. Google and Facebook must immediately stop targeting children with invasive data harvesting and manipulation. But only by radically overhauling the way that these companies operate can we truly protect children’s rights in the digital age.”


Notes

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) is a charitable think tank. We are wholly independent of political parties and committed to being transparent about how we are funded.

Global Action Plan is a charity that is working for a green and thriving planet where people enjoy their lives within the Earth’s resources. We do this by making connections between what is good for people and good for the planet.

The report, I‑Spy: the billion-dollar business of surveillance advertising to kids, will be available at https://neweconomics.org/2021/05/i‑spy 00.01 Tuesday 18 May 2021.

This research forms a part of the End Surveillance Advertising to Kids campaign, which brings people together to challenge the tech giants’ surveillance advertising business model which drives harmful consumerism and plummeting youth wellbeing. The campaign calls for an end to surveillance advertising to all under 18s, and for adverts to be capped at 10% of social media content. www​.glob​al​ac​tion​plan​.org​.uk/stak

NEF and GAP will be hosting an online event, How can we end surveillance advertising?, on Wednesday 19 May 2021, 18:00 – 19:00. https://​newe​co​nom​ics​.org/​2​0​2​1​/​0​5​/​h​o​w​-​c​a​n​-​w​e​-​r​e​s​i​s​t​-​s​u​r​v​e​i​l​l​a​n​c​e​-​a​d​v​e​r​t​ising

Surveillance advertising is the main business model of the digital economy. Alphabet – the parent company of Google and YouTube – generated almost 84% of its 2020 revenue through online ads, according to their public accounts. In the same year, Facebook generated over 98.5% of its revenue in the same way. More information can be found at Wallach, O. (2020). How big tech makes their billions. Visual Capitalist. Retrieved from https://​www​.visu​al​cap​i​tal​ist​.com/​h​o​w​-​b​i​g​-​t​e​c​h​-​m​a​k​e​s​-​t​h​e​i​r​-​b​i​l​l​i​o​n​s​-2020

Personal data can often be collected and shared over the ad-selling network without the necessary legal justification, especially in the case of children, where companies are required to get consent from the child’s legal guardian. Other solutions to prevent children from being targeted involving verifying internet users’ ages would involve yet more gathering of personal, sensitive or biometric information, invading the privacy of children further. In addition to protecting children from surveillance advertising, a ban would tackle data leaks and stop the incentive of big tech companies to gather, sell and buy personal data.

Research from Global Action Plan showing that teenagers see an ad every ten sections while scrolling through Instagram, amounting to 420 ads an hour, is from Global Action Plan survey of 102 teenagers using Instagram, 12 January 2020. Of 102 surveyed, they saw an average of 7.4 ads in one minute scrolling their Instagram feeds. 74% said they found advertising on social media either sometimes or very annoying.

NEF’s 2019 work, which found that on average 164 of these auctions happen to each person in the UK every day is available in the NEF report Blocking the Data Stalkers, available at https://​newe​co​nom​ics​.org/​2​0​1​8​/​1​2​/​b​l​o​c​k​i​n​g​-​t​h​e​-​d​a​t​a​-​s​t​a​lkersThis number was calculated by multiplying: number of UK internet users X average number of page visits per day X average number of ads per page X prevalence of ad blocking X use of real time bidding system. The figure that 820m digital profiles of children are broadcast through online ad networks was calculated using the figure of 164 average daily auctions for every person multiplied by the number of children under 18.

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