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The ethics of “smart” advertising and regulatory initiatives in the consumer intelligence industry

Rachel L. Finn (Trilateral Research & Consulting, LLP, London, UK)
Kush Wadhwa (Trilateral Research & Consulting, LLP, London, UK)


ISSN: 1463-6697

Article publication date: 6 May 2014




This paper aims to study the ethics of “smart” advertising and regulatory initiatives in the consumer intelligence industry. Increasingly, online behavioural advertising strategies, especially in the mobile media environment, are being integrated with other existing and emerging technologies to create new techniques based on “smart” surveillance practices. These “smart” surveillance practices have ethical impacts including identifiability, inequality, a chilling effect, the objectification, exploitation and manipulation of consumers as well as information asymmetries. This article examines three regulatory initiatives – privacy-by-design considerations, the proposed General Data Protection Regulation of the EU and the US Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2013 – that have sought to address the privacy and data protection issues associated with these practices.


The authors performed a critical literature review of academic, grey and journalistic publications surrounding behavioural advertising to identify the capabilities of existing and emerging advertising practices and their potential ethical impacts. This information was used to explore how well-proposed regulatory mechanisms might address current and emerging ethical and privacy issues in the emerging mobile media environment.


The article concludes that all three regulatory initiatives fall short of providing adequate consumer and citizen protection in relation to online behavioural advertising as well as “smart” advertising.


The article demonstrates that existing and proposed regulatory initiatives need to be amended to provide adequate citizen protection and describes how a focus on privacy and data protection does not address all of the ethical issues raised.



This paper is based on research performed by the authors in the context of the SAPIENT project, funded by the European Commission under grant agreement no. 261698. The views in this paper are those of the authors alone and are in no way intended to reflect those of the European Commission nor of our fellow SAPIENT partners.


L. Finn, R. and Wadhwa, K. (2014), "The ethics of “smart” advertising and regulatory initiatives in the consumer intelligence industry", info, Vol. 16 No. 3, pp. 22-39.



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