A number of organizations, including ProPublica, have developed tools to let the public see exactly how Facebook users are being targeted by advertisers.
Now, Facebook has quietly made changes to its site that stop those efforts.
and Who Targets Me
have all noticed their tools stopped working this month after Facebook inserted code in its website that blocks them.
“This is very concerning,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who has co-sponsored the Honest Ads Act
, which would require transparency on Facebook ads. “Investigative groups like ProPublica need access to this information in order to track and report on the opaque and frequently deceptive world of online advertising.”
For the past year and a half, ProPublica has been building a searchable database
of political ads and the segments of the population advertisers are paying to reach. We did this by enlisting thousands of volunteers who installed a web browser extension. The tool shared the ads users see as well as Facebook’s details on why the users were targeted.
In a statement to ProPublica, Facebook said the change was meant to simply enforce its terms of service. (The Guardian also published
a story Sunday flagging the change.)
“We regularly improve the ways we prevent unauthorized access by third parties like web browser plugins to keep people’s information safe,” Facebook spokesperson Beth Gautier said. “This was a routine update and applied to ad blocking and ad scraping plugins, which can expose people’s information to bad actors in ways they did not expect.”
Facebook has made minor tweaks before that broke our tool. But this time, Facebook blocked the ability to automatically pull ad targeting information.
The latest move comes a few months after Facebook executives urged ProPublica to shut down its ad transparency project. In August, Facebook ads product management director Rob Leathern acknowledged ProPublica’s project “serves an important purpose.” But he said, “We’re going to start enforcing on the existing terms of service that we have.” He said Facebook would soon “transition” ProPublica away from its tool.
Facebook has launched an archive
of American political ads, which the company says is an alternative to ProPublica’s tool. However, Facebook’s ad archive is only available in three countries, fails to disclose important targeting data and doesn’t even include all political ads run in the U.S.
Our tool regularly caught political ads that aren’t reflected in Facebook’s archive. Just this month, we noticed four groups running ads that haven’t been in Facebook’s archive:
After we contacted Facebook, the company canceled the ads and said it is “investigating why these particular ads weren’t classified as political so we can learn and update our protocols.”
Journalists in other countries — including those with impending elections like Canada, Ukraine, Guatemala and Israel — currently have no way to track political ads or targeting information. Facebook announced Monday
that it plans to expand its archive to those countries this year and will debut a global tool “by the end of June.” Continue Reading…