Twenty years ago, digital ads were little more than online billboards — pesky pop-ups that didn’t know who was seeing the ad, or why.
Today’s AI-powered digital advertisements are exponentially more sophisticated. These ads can profile consumers and segment them into astonishingly precise audiences. And these ads are highly personalized, from the language and images used to the price of the item being sold.
This AI-powered advertising provides consumers around the world with “free” access to products and services. It’s highly effective for advertisers, and highly lucrative for platforms. But there are grave harms, and consumers bear the brunt of them.
Today, fresh research by Mozilla Fellow Harriet Kingaby examines these harms on a global scale. In the report titled “AI & Advertising: A Consumer Perspective,” Kingaby identifies seven major threats that AI-powered ads present to consumers, from discrimination to misinformation. Kingaby details the consequences of those threats, and how they will likely grow worse as AI technology advances.
The report also identifies major reforms that could mitigate these harms, and the steps that civil society, regulators, and industry must take to realize them.
Says Kingaby: “Digital advertising is a booming industry: over $300 billion in 2019 alone. It’s also the primary business model sustaining the internet, humanity’s most important communications tool. But as AI-powered advertising grows more pervasive and sophisticated, it is doing so without guardrails. There are few rules to ensure it doesn’t surveil, misinform, or exclude consumers. If the industry doesn’t undergo major reform, these problems will only grow more pronounced.”
Kingaby is a UK-based Mozilla Fellow embedded at Consumers International, where she researches the consequences of AI-enhanced advertising. Kingaby is also co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network, a coalition of organizations supporting ethics in advertising.
The report also identifies a lack of cross-sector collaboration as a critical issue holding back progress. It calls for cross-disciplinary, mediated forums to be created, comprising digital rights groups, consumer protection experts, funders, publishers and advertisers.
Forums should ensure ethics by design in AI-powered advertising, identifying harms and creating new initiatives to solve them as they evolve; as well as monitoring ‘unknown unknowns’ which arise as a result of new technologies.
Forum priorities to include:
Mozilla Fellows are web activists, open-source researchers and scientists, engineers, and technology policy experts who work on the front lines of that movement. Fellows develop new thinking on how to address emerging threats and challenges facing a healthy internet.