In Australia, Meta Makes Big Claims on Targeted Advertising

Alice Dawkins, Rys Farthing / May 28, 2023

Rys Farthing is Policy Director and Alice Dawkins is Executive Director of Reset.Tech Australia.

Meta has been picking up the pace in Australia. The company recently flew out its US-based privacy executive for a raft of engagements, in an attempt to sweeten Australian lawmakers up to its preferred position on the country’s extensive privacy reforms.

Meta’s recent gestures have been demonstrably more restrained since its brazen campaign two years ago against Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code. Meta’s strategy included causing deliberate chaos across the nation’s newsfeeds in an act that some lawyers have argued was illegal. Far from a regional office gone rogue, the campaign had the attention and involvement of the company’s leadership. As the Wall Street Journal reported, then COO Sheryl Sandberg praised the “the thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay nimble as things evolved”, even designating it as “set[ting] a new high-standard” for the company’s advocacy activities.

Governments worldwide have taken a different view. Meta’s behavior over the News Media Bargaining Codecaught the attention of concerned policymakers worldwide. In March of this year, a key Canadian parliamentary committee voted to launch a ‘study’ on “[Big Tech’s] ongoing use of intimidation and subversion tactics to avoid regulation in Canada and across the world,” explicitly referring to Australia’s experience.

The early stages of Meta’s public campaign against the stronger parts of Australia’s Privacy Act reforms suggests a more circumspect approach – at least initially. The company is engaging proactively with the media, leading to a run of articles that broadcasted Meta’s headline pitch – crackdowns on targeted advertising may lead to user-paid models.

Under the proposed changes, targeted advertising under a reformed Privacy Act would need to pass a ‘fair and reasonable’ test, and be restricted from using information deemed sensitive (such as political opinions or affiliations). Importantly, adults would have an unqualified right to opt-out of targeted advertising. The Act would also be updated with a prohibition on targeting users under 18, as well as trading in their information.

The proposed Australian framework would align with elements of the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), which once fully in force will prohibit online platforms from presenting advertising based on personal information where that information is either from a minor, or in a ‘special category’ of information, as defined by Article 9 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This category includes information that reveals racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, genetic data, biometric data (when used for identification purposes) and data concerning health, a person’s sex life or sexual orientation.

Where the Australian approach diverges slightly from the European model is in the application of the “fair and reasonable” test. In the GDPR, the framing is “lawfully, fairly, and in a transparent manner.” Australia’s inclusion of ‘reasonableness’ is closer to the data protection regimes in Canada and Singapore. The Australian proposals are ambitious, but certainly not the radical package Meta and other industry interlocutors make them out to be.

Meta’s claim is that its business model can’t support users to both opt-out of targeting and continue to use its services free of monetary charge. This claim, while seemingly reasonable on its face, becomes disingenuous when viewed in an international context. For almost two months now, users across Europe have been able to opt out of targeted advertising, instead seeing only ads based on geography, gender and other ‘contexts’. Europeans can opt-out of ads the same way as Australia is proposing. (The EU has also made it clear that targeted ads are prohibited for children, and Meta has itself declared it was modifying its practices).

While the European data regulator had to force Meta to provide users with the option to opt out, and Meta reluctantly created the ‘form from hell’ to enable it, the point remains: Meta appears to reserve its most alarmist arguments for medium sized markets like Australia and Canada.

Meta won’t be the first or last tech behemoth to send its big guns to Canberra over the next few months. The showdown on the survival of ‘no choice’ targeted advertising in Australia is dragging in all sorts of players – from ad tech providers, ed tech firms, and marketers in industries from real estate to digital media – in feverish need of maintaining revenue. Watch this space.

Disclosure: in 2023, Tech Policy Press received an unrestricted grant from Reset to support its development and operations.


Alice Dawkins
Alice Dawkins is the Executive Director of Reset.Tech Australia. Before Reset, she worked to establish the Frontier Technology Initiative at the Minderoo Foundation. She was a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University, where she studied Chinese entrepreneurship and AI governance. Prior to that, she ...
Rys Farthing
Rys Farthing is Policy Director at Reset.Tech Australia. She has worked as an academic and policy analyst at not-for-profits, universities and think tanks in Australia, the UK and US (including Reset.Tech, 5Rights Foundation, Fairplay, University of Oxford University and RMIT). She holds a DPhil (Ox...