Ad-targeting should be made transparent, data ethics body says

People target Image copyright Getty Images

Major online companies should be required to host publicly accessible archives of certain targeted adverts, a government-commissioned report says.

Political ads and those for housing, credit, jobs and age-restricted products should be included, it says.

It follows controversy over the targeting of political adverts during the 2019 general election.

Web users want "meaningful control" over how their data is used to target advertising, the report says.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI)'s report also suggests the forthcoming online harms regulator should have the power to:

  • give independent experts secure access to online businesses to audit their use of people's data
  • compel online companies to give access to independent researchers "for research of significant potential importance to public policy"
  • make companies take steps to protect vulnerable people and be accountable for the effects of ad-targeting systems

This regulator should also establish a code of practice for businesses that buy or sell targeted ads online, the reports says.

"We have reviewed the powers of the existing regulators and conclude that enforcement of existing legislation and self-regulation cannot be relied on to meet public expectations of greater accountability," it says.

Image copyright Reuters

The background to the ad-targeting debate

Analysis by Joey D'Urso, BBC Political Research Unit

Online political advertising has been a hot topic in the UK since 2015, with Facebook ads also playing a key role in the 2016 EU referendum and 2017 general election.

After criticism over transparency, in 2018 Facebook unveiled an "ad library", which means anyone can browse the ads that politicians, parties and political campaign groups use to target voters. Google has a similar tool.

This meant online ads were covered extensively during the 2019 general election campaign.

However, while there is more transparency than before, it has limits - some observers have called Facebook's tool "inadequate".

The ad archive shows broad information like age and gender but does not reveal the far more sophisticated targeting tools political advertisers have at their disposal.

Today's report goes further, suggesting transparency for non-political advertisers, such as those marketing credit, or housing, or age-restricted products.

A spokeswoman for the UK's Internet Advertising Bureau said: "We welcome the CDEI's recognition that online targeting is an important driver of economic value and a core element of many business models, as well as the fact that people do value the benefits of targeting."

She added that the bureau, for one, was committed to increasing ad industry transparency.

The report showed there was strong public demand for the government to take action over ad-targeting, said Jeni Tennison, chief executive of the Open Data Institute, a non-profit organisation based in the UK.

"It's particularly welcome that they highlight the impact of 'opportunity' ads such as for jobs, credit and housing, alongside more familiar concerns about political advertising," she said.

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