When we hear gripes about social media, one of the top concerns is targeted advertising.
On any given day, this type of segmented advertising is used by the local hair salon searching for new clients, an environmental group asking for signatures on a petition and a city council candidate seeking your vote. These are all important and vital for our civil society.
These groups pay to get your attention on social media because it achieves something essential: to generate business, to advocate for social causes or win elections. This is facilitated by the unique platforms where we post and share information.
And because social media is usually free, accepting this advertising allows platforms to grow and scale to continue providing value to users. That is the balance that most of us understand. Some people are mildly annoyed, but others prefer advertising that caters to their interests.
Unfortunately, that distinction has given fodder to activists and politicians who want to ban this style of advertising to limit the ability to spread information on social media.
The latest scandal du jour, as one can guess, revolves around the 2020 elections and how political forces targeted would-be voters on social media.
Using Twitter and Facebook proved effective for both the Biden and Trump campaigns, up until both platforms halted political advertising. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent and tens of millions of voters were reached.
In a hearing on Tuesday, senators on the Judiciary Committee excoriated Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for their proprietary algorithms that drive engagement and sell ads.
Senators took turns grinding their axes, lodging complaints about content moderation, targeted advertising and market power.
The policy remedies discussed have so far been two-pronged, either using antitrust laws to break up the social media firms or rewriting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that currently treats online outlets as platforms rather than publishers, not making them liable for the content shared on their pages.
In either case, politicians in Washington get it wrong.
Action in either direction would end up being harmful to both consumers and small businesses, and dumb down the great innovative tech sector that is the world’s envy.
Social media platforms have grown to be popular because they empower users to speak their minds and be profitable because they enable small businesses and groups to find current and future customers. That is a win-win for society.
If targeted advertising is dismantled online as some hope, it would severely restrict the options for entrepreneurs and social groups to find supporters and clients.
That may sound good in theory, but in practice it means stopping advertising options for environmental groups, restaurants hoping to deliver food during continued lockdowns and more.
Regulating innovative technology because of serious legal and health concerns is warranted but stopping information and unique algorithms that give us what we want is a step too far.
We must face the fact that social media has become the new marketplace where we seek information. If we legislate and ban specific methods of sharing information on products and services online, this reduces consumer choice and chokes off entire industries.
This harms everyone.
More than harmful, it is also based on the false assumption that adults are not intelligent enough to understand or interpret advertising. This is both paternalistic and wrong.
Of course, ads are annoying for those who do not want them. And, luckily, the same technology that created targeted micro-advertising has also spawned ad-blocking browser plugins, Virtual Private Networks, and private browsing modes that are simple and easy to use for those who want them.
Thanks to technology, everything we do online has gotten more efficient, more effective and less costly. It has empowered nonprofits like mine, given a voice to millions of entrepreneurs and offered untold value to users around the world.
As advocates for a free and open internet, we must continue to uphold innovation and ensure it is protected from those that wish to limit its potential.