Adbreak for Europe

By Harriet Kingaby and Frederike Kaltheuner | Sept. 30, 2020 | Fellowships & Awards

This is a blog post by Mozilla Fellows Harriet Kingaby and Frederike Kaltheuner


Europe stands at a key moment in its relationship with digital technologies. But systems thinking, not piecemeal legislation, will be key to a future where humans can thrive alongside digital technology. Creating a regulatory framework that works for a world of AI and IoT means thinking bigger, and tackling key assumptions that underpin advertising technology and the surveillance economy.

Today, we are publishing a policy brief titled "Ad Break for Europe: The Race to Regulate Digital Advertising and Fix Online Spaces."

In this policy brief, we will argue that digital advertising – the business model that underpins most of the internet as we know it today – fails to support or sustain healthy digital spaces that are fit for purpose for the majority of people. The nature of contemporary digital advertising and its practices are at the core of some of the most pressing challenges facing societies today, from widespread and routine invasions of consumer protection and fundamental rights, to the funding of hate and misinformation. As a result, Europe’s chance at forging its own vision for the digital world hinges on its ability to regulate and ultimately fix an industry that has become unsustainable, especially as we embrace AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) and the online and offline environments become increasingly entwined.

Europe is in a unique position and moment in its relationship with digital technologies and services. In early 2020, the European Commission presented a series of proposals laying out the EU’s approach to data, artificial intelligence and platform regulation over the next five years and beyond. In the words of Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, this agenda is nothing less than Europe’s second chance at becoming a world leader in tech.

As it stands however, Europe lacks an overarching vision on how its digital strategy relates to online advertising. The Digital Services Act, the White Paper on AI, the Democracy Action Plan, the reform of the ePrivacy Direction, and the Commission’s plans for enforcing competition in digital markets all address some aspects of the online advertising ecosystem. But there is a real risk that these separate initiatives will either lead to incoherent rules, or will fail to address the core harms and risks associated with online advertising as we know it today.

In this brief, we will outline the harmful consequences of digital advertising on fundamental rights and democracy, and urge regulators to act fact and decisively. This isn’t just about the web as we know it. As online and offline environments become increasingly entwined, through smart cities, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT), the harmful practices we see online risk reoccurring in ever more connected offline spaces.

Ultimately, we believe that Europe’s second chance to become a world leader in tech will fail if Europe’s digital vision is merely a tamed version of surveillance capitalism. Instead of playing catchup in a personal data race that has already been lost, Europe has a unique opportunity to be an early investor in alternative business models for the web. We ask the Commission to reject the idea that Europe’s digital transformation follows a natural, predetermined path. Instead, the most important – the most urgent– question for the current Commission to ask is: what does Europe want to transform towards? Is it a digital Europe that is premised on the exploitation of people’s data? Or one that protects fundamental rights, empowers creators and promotes alternative business models for online content?