Surveillance-based advertising is everywhere on the internet. It’s bad for consumers, it erodes trust in businesses, and Fastmail believes it should be banned.
On June 23, 2021, a broad coalition of consumer rights organizations, civil rights groups, NGOs, academics, researchers, and privacy experts called on regulators globally to stop the invasive and privacy-hostile practices of surveillance-based advertising.
We have always believed in privacy for our customers and all users of the internet.
We have also always believed that advertising is an important way for businesses to connect customers to the services they need.
In the past, advertising was context-based. Businesses would distribute advertisements in a region they served or in places where a particular interest group would look (for example, advertising in industry periodicals for their target market).
This kind of advertising is appropriate. Advertisements appear in context, so customers know where to look. This method allows businesses to expose their target market to options that they didn’t previously know were possible. It also helps advocacy and market building, which are essential pieces of advertising’s role. Furthermore, this kind of advertising showcases its messages in the proper context—open a car magazine and see advertisements for car-related products and services.
An important point to make about the previous example is that car advertisements don’t follow you around the internet for the next three months after you open a car magazine. Similarly, after you visit an appliance store in person, you won’t be prompted with offers to buy a second fridge for the rest of the year!
Today’s surveillance and hyper-personalized advertising merge all contexts together. It becomes about the person rather than the role they are filling. We all have multiple roles in life—parent, child, partner, member of a club or organization, role at work, or friend. Our needs and desires differ as we inhabit our various roles, but surveillance advertising follows us around the internet regardless of what role we are inhabiting.
Surveillance advertising follows us everywhere. When you look up something for work, it follows you home. Likewise, when you search for something at home, related topics will pop up at inopportune times on your screen at work.
Advertising hasn’t always been this way, but it’s always had a component of persuasion. With big data, this gets turned up to 11—some advertisers aren’t just selling toothpaste; they’re trying to change your point of view.
Contending with hyper-personalized advertising is not a fair fight for the human brain. With sufficient data, the computer knows more about how your brain works than you do yourself, and has learned how to best influence you against your will. Informed consent and free will are impossible when the computer can target you at your weakest time with a personalized sales pitch.
As data is gathered and shared through large-scale surveillance, and used to drive profiled advertising, the advertising companies (and to a lesser extent the businesses using them) know too much about us. These companies make decisions about what advertisements and services are available to us, on our behalf, without our knowledge or consent, and without any right to correct or remove the data they hold about us.
We are here for human-to-human communication. Fastmail helps our customers connect directly with other people, without giving up their privacy. We don’t sell or share email content or any customer data, because we know that the primary use of resold data is harmful. Instead, we use a business model that’s clear and transparent—”money in exchange for service.”
Our customers enjoy the peace of mind that comes from being our primary stakeholder, rather than a product to be sold on the grey market of surveillance data. They also get a usable service—because that matters too—your time is valuable, and Fastmail respects that by making email as quick and painless to use as possible.
We are proud to be counted among the companies calling for regulatory restrictions on the harmful algorithmic surveillance invading everybody’s digital lives.
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