Wednesday, August 10, 2022

DuckDuckGo urges Congress to pass bill to stop advertisers from snooping on people

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Concerns that your phone is snooping on you and sharing the info with advertisers have created cause for Congress to ban surveillance ads, the company DuckDuckGo told lawmakers on Tuesday.

The search engine competitor to Google has thrown its support behind a bill to stop ads from targeting people based on personal data, which the House Energy and Commerce Committee reviewed in a hearing Tuesday.

Katie McInnis, DuckDuckGo senior public policy manager, said her company’s search engine uses contextual ads that rely on the content on a screen over the behavior of the person using their service.

“Behavioral advertising, by contrast, is based on personal profiles of data collected both on and offline about you,” Ms. McInnis said at the committee hearing. “Have you ever searched for something online and then saw an ad for that exact same thing pop up on another website or an app or maybe you thought that your phone is listening to you based on the creepy ads that you’re seeing online? That’s surveillance advertising.”

Worries about companies using devices to listen in on customers are not new.

For example, a Reddit user posted a screenshot in 2020 of Google sending notifications to his phone about alarms heard in his home.

Google said it was aware of an error that enabled sound detection alerts for things like smoke alarms or glass breaking.  

Ms. McInnis stopped short of directly accusing her competitors of intentionally spying on people through their phones, but she did say the Ban Surveillance Advertising Act would damage Google and Facebook’s duopoly in the digital advertising market.

The advertising market is not the only place where DuckDuckGo wants the government to diminish its competitors’ business.

The company joined a coalition urging the Senate Judiciary Committee in January to support the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which aims to stop Big Tech companies from giving a leg up to their own related products over those of their competitors.

DuckDuckGo benefits from a large technology company’s advertising services too, however.

Ad clicks on DuckDuckGo are managed by Microsoft’s ad network, according to DuckDuckGo’s website, and Ms. McInnis referred questions about its ad revenue to Microsoft.

The issue of DuckDuckGo’s relationship with Microsoft arose during questioning from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican, about DuckDuckGo’s operations involving Russia.

Asked by Mrs. McMorris Rodgers about her company’s partnership with the Russian internet company Yandex, Ms. McInnis said her company paused its relationship amid the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Given you raise revenue via contextual advertising and affiliated programs, are you able to say whether such revenue has ever come from Russian state media sources in this partnership?” Mrs. McMorris Rodgers said.

“I do not know,” Ms. McInnis said. “Our advertisements are provided through Bing’s contextual ads program, and so Microsoft’s advertising would have the best information about that.”

Ms. McInnis wore yellow and blue eye shadow — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — at the hearing. Mrs. McMorris Rodgers showed her support of the Ukrainian people by wearing a yellow blazer.

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