Norway defeated Meta’s surveillance ads.

Norway defeated Meta's surveillance ads.

Meta’s Behavioral Advertising: A Deep Dive into Privacy Concerns

Meta’s Behavioral Advertising

When you scroll through your Instagram feed, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just a casual pastime. Behind the scenes, the app’s algorithms are eagerly gathering information about your behavior. They’re not only interested in showing you content that will keep you engaged, but also in tailoring advertisements that are more likely to entice you to make a purchase. Welcome to the world of Meta and its behavioral advertising.

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, collects and compiles user activity across its apps, which includes information like social media posts, comments, unencrypted messages, hashtags, and even the time spent watching specific types of posts or videos. This wealth of data can unveil highly personal details, ranging from an individual’s musical preferences to their menstrual cycles. Tobias Judin, spokesperson for Norway’s privacy watchdog, Datatilsynet, describes the data collected as “potent” as it reveals not just someone’s interests but their personality as well. When this data is then used to shape the ads a user sees, it enters the realm of behavioral advertising.

For years, European courts have argued that Meta cannot employ this type of data for advertising purposes without the explicit consent of users. However, in July, Norway took a bold step forward by declaring Meta’s behavioral advertising illegal. The privacy watchdog threatened to ban Meta’s behavioral ads in Norway and impose a daily fine of $100,000 unless the company changed its practices. The ban was set to go into effect on August 4, but just days before, on August 1, Meta quietly made an update to a January blog post, announcing its intention to transition from relying on “Legitimate Interests” to “Consent” as the legal basis for processing certain data for behavioral advertising.

This move by Meta indicates a significant victory for Norway. Judin believes that Meta’s claim of a voluntary change is unconvincing, suspecting that the company’s desire for profit has historically outweighed its commitment to privacy. Meta’s advertising revenue from the wider Europe region accounted for nearly a quarter of its earnings in the three months leading up to June 30. Norway’s decision to take a strong stance against Meta’s practices has marked the country’s privacy watchdog as a prominent adversary for the tech giant.

However, Norway’s actions are just the tip of the iceberg. Meta has faced numerous legal challenges in Europe regarding its deployment of personalized advertising. In response, the company has resorted to different legal justifications to bypass the need for user consent. Initially, Meta argued that behavioral ads were essential to its business model. When that defense was refuted, the company claimed a “legitimate interest” in using user data. However, in July, the EU Court of Justice ruled that consent was necessary for such advertising practices. Norway’s complaint became the final straw that pushed Meta to change its approach.

The catalyst for Meta’s decision, according to Max Schrems, the founder of privacy campaign group NOYB, was a ruling by the European Data Protection Board in January and the subsequent EU Court of Justice case in July. Norway’s powerful and uncompromising stance in upholding European tech rules has also played a significant role. Schrems praises Norway for strictly applying the law, which many other data protection regulators fail to do. While Meta’s indication to ask for European users’ consent may seem like an expected course of action, Schrems points out that the company has been disregarding the law for the past five years.

In Norway, Judin expresses optimism about Meta giving users more control over how their information informs the advertising they see. However, he emphasizes the importance of ensuring that users are not subtly persuaded or coerced into granting their consent. Datatilsynet will closely monitor how Meta implements this change, ensuring that it aligns with privacy regulations.

Meta’s shift towards gaining consent for behavioral advertising in Europe marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing battle between privacy advocates and digital giants. While the impact of this change remains to be seen, it certainly highlights the growing demand for greater transparency and user control in the realm of personalized advertising. One thing is clear: the struggle to find the delicate balance between targeted ads and individual privacy is far from over.