New Report Accuses Facebook of Misleading Public
About Its Surveillance Ads to Youth
Global health advocates call on Facebook to stop targeting kids with surveillance advertising
BOSTON, LONDON, SYDNEY – Tuesday, November 16, 2021 – Today an international coalition of 47 public health, privacy, child rights, anti-gambling, human rights, environment and consumer advocates accused Facebook of continuing to harvest and profile teens’ personal data in order to serve them targeted ads, contradicting Facebook’s public statements claiming they now have “very limited advertising to young people.” The coalition is calling on Facebook to stop all surveillance advertising directed at young people.
In July 2021 Facebook announced, to much fanfare, that it was restricting advertisers’ ability to target teens on Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram. But an analysis by Fairplay, Global Action Plan UK, and Reset Australia found that Facebook continues to collect data from teens to fuel its ad delivery system. Advertisers may no longer be able to target teens, but Facebook’s algorithm can.
In a letter to Mark Zuckerberg the advocates urged Facebook to immediately end all surveillance advertising to children and adolescents, including the use of artificial intelligence to optimize the delivery of specific ads to the young people most vulnerable to them.
On July 27 of this year, Facebook announced it was changing its advertising rules for children, in response to concerns of youth advocates. The company said it would be “taking a more precautionary approach in how advertisers can reach young people,” and “previously available targeting options, like those based on interests or on their activity on other apps and websites, will no longer be available to advertisers.”
Research published today, led by Elena Yi-Ching Ho and Rys Farthing of Reset Australia, demonstrates that Facebook has not limited the use of surveillance advertising for teens. Facebook is still harvesting children’s personal data to fuel their advertising delivery system. As the letter notes, “while Facebook says it will no longer allow advertisers to selectively target teenagers, it appears Facebook itself continues to target teens, only now with the power of AI.”
The research demonstrates that conversion APIs including Facebook Pixel and app SPK – two cornerstones of Facebook’s machine learning ‘Ad Delivery’ system – are still operational on teens’ accounts meaning they still receive advertising personalized to their interests when on Facebook.
Oliver Hayes, Policy & Campaigns lead at Global Action Plan (UK) said:
“Once again, Facebook is saying one thing and doing another. It is deeply cynical to trumpet the end of targeted ads to kids, all the while harvesting teens’ data to fuel powerful ‘optimized’ ads delivered by AI.
“Surveillance ads to kids are invasive, manipulative, and unpopular. Clearly, Facebook knew as much when it announced its July changes. But their attempt to score a PR win while continuing to spy on kids for profit has now been called out.
“We can’t trust platforms to self-regulate. That’s why the UK’s Online Safety Bill must be amended to outlaw surveillance advertising to kids.”
Josh Golin, Executive Director of Fairplay, said:
“It is extremely disappointing that Facebook appeared to take a legitimate step forward, but it was nothing more than a PR play. We hope Congress will take note and move quickly to ban surveillance advertising to children and teens, because when it comes to young people’s wellbeing, Facebook simply cannot be trusted.”
Dr. Rys Farthing, Director of Children’s Policy at Reset Australia, said:
“This is hardly a precautionary approach to advertising for children. Earlier this year, we caught Facebook allowing advertisers to target teens interested in gambling and alcohol. They said they fixed this by not letting advertisers target kids based on interests anymore. But far from changing their systems to improve things for children, Facebook has yet again put their interests first, unleashed their algorithms and may have actually made things worse for children. They seem unable to act in children’s best interests.”
An international, multi-sector coalition of organizations signed today’s letter to Facebook including:
Fairplay, Global Action Plan UK, Reset Australia, 5Rights Foundation, Accountable Tech, Adfree Cities, Africa Digital Rights’ Hub, Amnesty International USA, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Canadian Centre for Child Protection Inc., Center for Digital Democracy, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, Coalition For Women In Journalism, Common Sense, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Federation of California, CyberSafeKids, Data Privacy Brasil Research Association, Defend Democracy, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Exposure Labs: The Creators of The Social Dilemma, Fair Vote UK, Fight for the Future, Foxglove, Friends of the Earth, Global Witness, Instituto Alana, International Association for Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Education, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, #jesuislà, Log Off Movement, Me2B Alliance, National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Obligation inc., Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Peace Educators Allied for Children Everywhere (P.E.A.C.E., Inc.), Parents Television and Media Council, ParentsTogether, Peter Tatchell Foundation Privacy International (PI), Ranking Digital Rights, Stop Funding Heat, Stop Predatory Gambling and the Campaign for Gambling-Free Kids, Tech Transparency Project, The Signals Network, UltraViolet, Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America