Trust and Transparency: Tackling disinformation and the proposed targeted advertising ban

Tackling dis- and misinformation, as well as the proposed ban on targeted advertising, are two of the biggest concerns facing the advertising ecosystem. While detecting and removing disinformation is a huge challenge for AdTech firms, brands are equally burdened by the need to avoid advertising alongside disinformation. Meanwhile, the proposed ban on targeted advertising, which is being considered as part of the EU’s Digital Services Act, could pose significant risks to start-ups, SMEs and publishers. These issues were the subject of a series of panel discussions hosted by IAB Europe at the closing session of their Trust and Transparency events series.

What are the challenges in detecting and avoiding disinformation?

The first panel discussion centred around what the advertising industry can do to tackle disinformation. While tools such as keyword blocklists (blocking all content containing certain words) can be useful – the reality is rarely so simple. As pointed out by David Goddard, Vice President for Business Development at DoubleVerify, if you are concerned with disinformation relating to Covid-19, you can’t simply block all information including the word ‘vaccine’ – much of that content would not be disinformation. Goddard highlighted the role of technology in creating advanced solutions for detecting the true nature of content.

The participants also stressed the importance of industry efforts to tackle disinformation. IAB Europe’s Greg Mroczkowski pointed to the Code of Practice on Disinformation as a vital tool. The Code, originally agreed in 2018 by a group of signatories from the digital and advertising sectors, is currently in the process of being redrafted. The aim is to bring in a much broader spectrum of signatories and create a much stronger Code with further-reaching commitments. The importance of the revision to the Code was supported by Justin Adler-Swanberg, Director of Marketplace Quality at MediaMath and David Goddard, who went on to highlight the importance of tackling disinformation for clients of AdTech companies. He pointed to research finding that more than half of consumers would be less likely to purchase again from a company whose adverts appeared next to disinformation.

The Digital Services Act: What could a targeted advertising ban mean for startups and SMEs?

In another panel discussion, IAB Europe’s CEO Townsend Feehan was joined by Konrad Shek, Director of Policy Research at the Advertising Information Group (AIG), Benedikt Blomeyer, Director of EU Policy at Allied for Startups, and Agata Boutanos, Director of ZPP Brussels Office.

The discussion focused on the importance of targeted advertising for start-ups and SMEs. While admitting that many start-ups run ads to generate revenue, Benedikt Blomeyer highlighted the key reason targeted advertising is important for start-ups: it allows them reach new customers in an affordable manner. Many start-ups with limited resources simply cannot afford a more widespread advertising campaign. Agata Boutanos concurred that SMEs rely on targeted advertising, describing it as “deeply embedded” within the industry.

Konrad Shek also highlighted the fact that a total ban on targeted advertising didn’t feature in the Commission’s impact assessment – meaning the potential impact on, for example, publishers may not have been properly considered. The issue of amendments not being subject to an impact assessment was described by Townsend Feehan as a “chronic problem”.

The panel also discussed ‘consent fatigue’ – the fear that potential extra consent features for targeted advertising (to go alongside the mandatory cookie windows when visiting a website) could leave users overwhelmed or irritated. The temptation to simply click ‘accept all’ rather than properly consider a long series of options could undermine efforts to create informed consent while making the user experience less pleasant.

Ultimately, all members of the panel stressed the importance of the Digital Services Act for updating old legislation but worried it was becoming, in the words of Blomeyer, a ‘Christmas tree’, with too many, distinct issues being added in.

What developments can we expect in the coming months? 

The Signatories to the Code of Practice on Disinformation, including EACA, are currently working with the support of the Commission to update the Code to strengthen commitments to tackling disinformation. The target is to have a final, revised draft Code completed by the end of 2021.

The JURI committee of the European Parliament has passed its opinion on the Digital Services Act, with the Act now in the hands of the Internal Market committee for its final consideration of amendments. After the committee’s vote on 8 November we will know whether a targeted advertising ban is likely to be adopted.

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