by Oliver Hayes, Policy & Campaigns Lead
4 min read
Today an international coalition of 46 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 surveillance ads, contradicting Facebook’s public statements claiming they now have “very limited advertising to young people”. The coalition is calling on Facebook to immediately stop all surveillance advertising directed at children and teens.
In July 2021 Facebook announced, to much fanfare, that it was restricting advertisers’ ability to target teens on Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram.
Global Action Plan and many others campaigning for protections for children online welcomed this move, considering it a major step forward.
However, if the last few months of leaks and revelations have taught us anything, it is that we should not take everything from Facebook as we find it.
New analysis, published today by Global Action Plan, Reset Australia & Fairplay, reveals that Facebook continues to collect data from teens to fuel its ad delivery system.
In other words, while advertisers may no longer be able to target teens, Facebook’s algorithm can.
In many ways, this could be worse for children. While previously advertisers were to some extent guessing which kids, with which characteristics, would be most vulnerable to their ads, the Facebook algorithm is using all the data at Facebook’s disposal to know – and continuously learn – who is best to target and when.
So while an advertiser can no longer specify that their ad shows up in a 14 yr old’s feed, Facebook’s algorithm could place it there if it considers that 14 yr old to be the best fit for the ad.
That’s why in our letter to Mark Zuckerberg, more than 40 organisations urged Facebook to immediately end all surveillance advertising to children and adolescents, including the use of artificial intelligence to optimise the delivery of specific ads to the young people most vulnerable to them.
Today’s revelations fly in the face Facebook’s July changes to advertising rules for children, which it said it was making 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 that “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.”
While technically true – the options are no longer available to advertisers – this announcement very much gave the impression of an end to invasive targeting to teens on Facebook.
But today’s technical analysis, 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. They are, we contend, still harvesting children’s personal data to fuel their advertising delivery system.
Specifically, 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 personalised to their interests when on Facebook.
Oliver Hayes, Policy & Campaigns lead at Global Action Plan 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 ‘optimised’ 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.”