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Slow Big Tech with a Digital Advertising Tax

June 17th, 2021 by dk

Congress wants to curb the power of Big Tech. They also would like to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure (broadly defined), if only they can agree on how to pay for it. These two goals could intersect. A digital advertising tax could do both. It would also strengthen democracy itself against the widening and accelerating power of capitalism.

I don’t propose this concept lightly. I’ve run daily newspapers. I owned a couple of weeklies. I sold advertising myself. I know it’s the lifeblood of most popular media. I also know that we were always comfortingly clumsy at matching advertisers to audiences.

We could show our readership numbers from outfits like Verified Audit or Audit Bureau of Circulations. We could give business owners demographic or psychographic details about who would likely see their ads. It was always painted with a broad brush because it was the only brush we had.

It feels quaint now, looking back, because the world is very different today. Traditional media outlets still focus on the big picture, not the granular details. Direct mail can show which addresses received their envelopes, but not how many people opened them.

Contrast that with modern digital advertising — podcasts, email campaigns, websites, and social media marketing. Each can report exactly how many people they reach — to an unsettling degree. How much time we spend looking or listening can be tracked precisely. So it is.

It’s called surveillance capitalism. We get content for free (or nearly free) in return for allowing advertisers to track our movements. Surveillance anywhere risks becoming surveillance everywhere. A digital advertising tax would slow this trajectory.

Snippets of code follow our online habits. Patents are pending to track users’ eye movements on a screen, or to distinguish between multiple users of a shared device. Will your fitbit measure what images get your heart racing? That’s already possible.

Because Google and Facebook and Amazon can match you so ruthlessly with ads you might find attractive, it’s no longer a fair fight. Truth be told, we love being targeted. It feels good to be “known.” It’s only not creepy because we’ve accepted the system’s anodyne names. Who’s against clicks, cookies and clouds?

How much is spent on online advertising in the United States? Estimates range from $125 billion to nearly $1 trillion per year. All agree it’s growing at an accelerating pace.

Fortunately, most advertising is used to sell things that people don’t actually need. Nobody walks barefoot into a shoe store. Any advertising surtax would be passed on in higher prices, but it would have minimal effect on basic foodstuffs, generics, and low-cost leaders.

America remains vibrant after a quarter of a millennium by maintaining a constant tension between democracy and capitalism. Democracy posits that we are all equal. Capitalism pits us against one another to gain economic advantage.

We must rebalance that tension. It’s not healthy to think of ourselves as customers first and citizens second. Our society might not survive if we came to consider ourselves as consumers only. Think of this as a new vice tax. Nobody loves digital advertising, so tax it.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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