CDEI publish interim report on online targeting

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) has published an interim report highlighting their progress and emerging insights from their review into online targeting. Alongside the report, the CDEI commissioned the Open Innovation Team to produce a summary of the research landscape on online targeting, which can be found here.

The interim report highlights their initial findings on the following three questions:

  1. Public attitudes- Where is the use of technology out of line with public values, and what’s the right balance of responsibility between individuals, companies, and government?
  2. Regulation and governance- Are current regulatory mechanisms able to deliver their intended outcomes?
  3. Solutions- What technical, legal or other mechanisms could help ensure that the use of online targeting is consistent with the law and public values?

Public attitudes

According to the public dialogue exercises conducted, most participants felt that online targeting offered benefits to them as individuals and saw it as playing an important role in creating a good customer experience. Participants recognised that online targeting can be highly beneficial in sifting and identifying the information, services and products of most interest to them online.

However early findings suggest that people’s attitudes towards targeting change when they understand more of how it works and how pervasive it is. While people recognise the benefits of online targeting, most seem to agree that there are some forms of targeting which make them uncomfortable, and that changes are needed to the way targeting is practised and overseen.

Importantly most participants understood that there were trade-offs when it comes to being protected from the harms posed online targeting and that limiting organisations’ access to information about them might not be satisfactory if it also reduces some of the benefits that people enjoy.

The next phase of the public dialogue will explore to what extent participants would like more control over the content they see online and how they are targeted. They will also consider the balance of responsibilities between individuals, industry, government and regulators.

Regulation and governance

The CDEI are also reviewing the governance landscape of online targeting, to identify where policy and regulation may need strengthening, reshaping or removing. There are a number of features of online services which may impact the effectiveness of the market and the ability of individuals to adequately protect their own interests, including limited transparency and competition, and the potential for consumer harm. But any changes to oversight mechanisms need to take into account how responsibility should be split between different actors; how to make the most of market incentives, voluntary regulation and empowering users; and how to enable effective monitoring and enforcement.


CDEI are exploring a wide range of solutions that could address concerns or enable more beneficial uses of targeting. According to their interim report, in some areas stronger regulations may be needed. In other areas, greater transparency and visibility of how targeting operates may be more useful. The Centre has identified four categories of intervention that they will be exploring in the next phase of their work:

  • Accountability and oversight- mechanisms to give platforms greater responsibility for the content distributed on them and be open about the processes used to determine the acceptability of targeting algorithms; to provide greater transparency to individuals and to allow independent research on the impacts of targeting.
  • More restrictive regulation of content distribution- mechanisms to restrict the types and narrowness of targeting that can be undertake, to introduce stronger obligations on organisations to protect against vulnerability.
  • Strengthening individual powers and information- mechanisms to require stronger consent rules, to introduce greater transparency about information held about people, how it is used in targeting processes, and the sources of that information.
  • Enhancing competition- identifying policies that would support the development of new business models such as third parties to manage individuals’ data on their behalf.

The final report which will include recommendations to government is expected in December 2019. If you’d like to find out more about the CDEI’s work, please contact Katherine.

  • Katherine Mayes

    Katherine Mayes

    Programme Manager | Cloud, Data, Analytics and AI
    T 020 7331 2019

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