Democratic Bill Seeks to Ban Microtargeting in Political Ads

It would prohibit federal campaigns from targeting based on demographic data

Democratic members of Congress are introducing bills to limit political campaigns from microtargeting online. Getty Images
Headshot of Scott Nover

Key insights:

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., introduced a bill today that would restrict microtargeting efforts on political advertisements.

The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act would bar online platforms from targeting political ads based on users’ demographic and behavioral data, though it would still permit geographic targeting and any targeting to which users voluntarily opt in.

The bill specifies that it applies to “social media, ad networks and streaming services,” and, because the bill would only apply to federal candidates for office, enforcement would be carried out by the Federal Election Commission.

“Microtargeting political ads fractures our open democratic debate into millions of private, unchecked silos, allowing for the spread of false promises, polarizing lies, disinformation, fake news, and voter suppression,” Eshoo said in a statement. “With spending on digital ads in the 2020 election expected to exceed $1.3 billion, Congress must step in to protect our nation’s democratic process.”

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., is also expected to introduce a bill restricting political targeting based on age, gender and location, Politico previously reported.

The concept of political microtargeting is deeply unpopular. As Adweek previously reported, a March poll from the Knight Foundation and Gallup, and cited by Eshoo, found that 7 in 10 Americans do not want political campaigns microtargeting them. The poll further showed broad consensus across party lines, as 69% of Democrats, 75% of Republicans and 72% of independents expressed an aversion to microtargeting.

Eshoo has previously advocated for stricter privacy laws, including a federal privacy law and an emergency privacy law specific to health information related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The new microtargeting bill is backed by an impressive swath of advocacy groups including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Common Cause and the Center for Digital Democracy.

It also has the support of FEC commissioner Ellen Weintraub, the lone Democrat serving on the bipartisan commission.

After Twitter rid its own platform of political ads in November, Weintraub wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying that eliminating political ads outright isn’t the only solution: “Eliminating political-ad microtargeting would address a healthy share of the worst problems we see in online political advertising,” she wrote at the time. “Political advertising on the internet is an important part of our political discourse—perhaps the most important. I favor more political speech, not less.”

@ScottNover Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.