Press Releases

Trahan Leads Introduction of Social Media DATA Transparency Legislation

Social Media DATA Act would deliver data academic researchers need to study consumer impacts of targeted digital ads

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Congresswoman Lori Trahan (MA-03), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, led the introduction of the Social Media Disclosure and Transparency of Advertisements (DATA) Act, legislation that will lift the curtain on key data regarding online targeted advertisements that is currently held under lock and key by dominant platforms.

“Massive digital platforms like Google and Facebook continue to profit hand over fist from targeted ads while bad actors actively exploit their lack of transparency to harm consumers, including some of the most vulnerable in our communities,” said Congresswoman Trahan. “It’s not a coincidence that these companies’ hollow attempts at ad libraries and other databases lack key information needed for substantive research into their wide-ranging effects. The Social Media DATA Act will help shine a long overdue light on all of the impacts ad targeting has on consumers – not just the rosy picture painted by companies focused on their bottom line.”

Large digital platforms have the largest repository of online behavioral data in the world, cementing their dominance in digital ad targeting. While online advertising has become the most common method for small and medium sized businesses to reach consumers, it has also emerged as a leading source of disinformation and harmful or defective product promotion that can be targeted to vulnerable populations. The digital marketing industry has allowed ads promoting high interest credit cards to target older women, junk food and pill parties to target younger users, predatory for-profit colleges to target veterans, fraudulent opioid rehabilitation centers to target potential patients, and muchmuch more.

What’s clear is that marketers have taken advantage of the ability to target advertisements for products in ways that are manipulative, discriminatory, and in some cases, outright corrupt. They capitalize on platforms’ algorithms which are centered on optimization and designed to maximize profitability. Despite the glaring harms the status quo has on consumers, large platforms, Google and Facebook included, have consistently withheld data necessary to understand the full scope of ad targeting’s effects. In fact, as the sole aggregators of such large data sets, these companies are incentivized by obscene profits to not share key data needed by information scientists and other experts to study their impacts on consumers and society as a whole.

Although some platforms have created ad libraries and research initiatives, many of these efforts leave out critical data points necessary for reliable research while also raising privacy and ethics concerns. The Social Media DATA Act would address both issues by requiring that large platforms that utilize digital advertising maintain an accessible database for academic researchers and set uniform standards for the types of data that must be included. It also would establish and authorize funding for a working group overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) responsible for ensuring that research conducted with confidential data is consistent with consumers’ rights to privacy. 

A copy of the legislation introduced today can be accessed HERE. A section-by-section summary can be accessed HERE. A fact sheet can be accessed by clicking HERE.

The legislation is cosponsored by Representative Kathy Castor (FL-18). It’s also supported by key groups, including Public Knowledge, Anti-Defamation League, Public Citizen, Center for Digital Democracy, Accountable Tech, Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, Common Sense, Decode Democracy, and Media Alliance.

"As social media has become a more powerful tool to influence politics, policy, and public opinion, regulations to ensure transparency have failed to keep up. As a result, social media platforms have become weaponized as tools to deceive, spread disinformation, and incite violence,” said Ann M. Ravel, Policy Director at Decode Democracy and former Chair of the Federal Election Commission. “By requiring platforms to maintain libraries of ads and directing the FTC to provide guidance about the access researchers should have to social media data, the Social Media DATA Act would mark a significant increase in transparency to help us diagnose and fix problems while holding the platforms accountable.”

“Social Media DATA Act will provide much-needed clarity on the intricacies of the advertising networks of major platforms, all while ensuring protections for users and their data through a future FTC rulemaking,” said Sara Collins, Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge. “Access to this information will be under FTC oversight to ensure that data is used for its intended purpose, research. Allowing research of this kind will provide a better understanding of both the efficacy of targeted advertising and its effects on users, which should help policymakers make strong consumer-centered policies in areas like competition and privacy.”

“The opacity of adtech has allowed social media giants like Facebook and Google-owned YouTube to rake in record profits while allowing discrimination and fraud to run rampant on their platforms. The same corporations that stand to make billions of dollars from the status quo should not be in charge of regulating themselves,” said Rishi Bharwani, Director of Partnerships and Policy at Accountable Tech. “The Social Media DATA Act provides the transparency that’s needed by allowing academic researchers, civil rights advocates, and privacy experts access to the data they need to protect consumers and small businesses alike.”

“Social media is fueled by a business model that puts profit over people,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. “In order to understand and remedy the harmful consequences of this model, we need - but currently lack - meaningful transparency requirements that permit examination of advertising practices, including how they target users and what paid content is amplified. By requiring platforms to provide increased access to academic researchers and the FTC, this bill will help us better analyze the problems with, and repair, our broken internet.”

Additional statements of support can be accessed by clicking HERE.