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House digital subcommittee tackles targeted online advertising at hearing

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House digital subcommittee tackles targeted online advertising at hearing

In light of recent data privacy scandals, House Commerce lawmakers debated whether online advertising, especially targeted advertising, should be regulated.

During the June 14 Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee hearing titled, "Understanding the Digital Advertising Ecosystem," legislators recalled Facebook Inc.'s global data scandal involving the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica LLC and asked how to structure online protections so that consumers are given optimal control over their data.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., asked whether there should be baseline rules that promote innovation while ensuring that consumers' online information is protected.

Congress should be specific about which areas of online advertising it aims to address first, said Howard Beales, professor of strategic management and public policy at George Washington University. "You need to figure out what harm you're worried about and figure out what's the best way to stop that harm specifically," Beales said. "It's not an information problem, it's what people are doing with the information."

Many companies' self-regulatory efforts thus far "haven't been sufficient to address [privacy] concerns," Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy at Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, noted. That said, overregulating online advertisers could stifle innovation, said Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind.

Too much regulation could also hamper several companies' ability to combat criminal activity online, said Mike Zaneis, president and CEO at Trustworthy Accountability Group, a program that works to eliminate fraudulent online activity. "I want to make sure [Congress doesn't] ... get too myopic on advertising because [user data] is collected for all sorts of purposes," he said.

Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Calif., asked whether creators of advertising products are adequately trained on the importance of data privacy. Rachel Glasser, global chief privacy officer at Wunderman, a global digital agency, said more education "is ... extremely important, whether it comes to children, advertising [and] how to help elderly people recognize scams or fraud."

Additionally, laws governing online and offline practices continue to be blurred, making it all the more important for consumers to be better educated about how their digital data is being shared, said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich. "Consumers don't understand how much [their] data is being used and how it can be used," she said.

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled in an April hearing over his company's data privacy breaches.