Are we targeting you? Yep. And we’ll tell you how.
When I joined Mozilla, the organization had made the decision to pause Facebook advertising in light of the Cambridge Analytica privacy controversy. This was a decision that I understand, but I’m changing course.
For Mozilla, it boils down to this: our mission requires that we empower everyone to protect themselves online, not just the folks that are plugged in to the recent techlash. And a lot of the people that may need our tools the most spend a lot of time on Facebook and Instagram.
So the question becomes, can we reach folks on these platforms with our ads, while staying true to Mozilla’s values? I believe we can, and it starts with being up front about what we’re doing.
Here’s the skinny:
Online, people are segmented into small groups in order to serve them up highly-targeted advertisements. This is called microtargeting. And it happens countless times a day on the platforms we use every day.
For many years the conventional wisdom was that this type of advertising was simply a better way to put more relevant ads in front of consumers. Relevant ads means better conversion for advertisers, which means more goods sold. And, hey, sometimes it works out well for people. Chances are you’ve found a new shampoo or pair of shoes or set of weights because of these targeted ads. You’ve also probably bought something you didn’t need (or even particularly want) because of these targeted ads. I know I have – my half-used collection of skincare products can attest to that.
The problem is not that these ads themselves exist, it is the complexity of the system that’s the issue. The same highly sophisticated targeting tools that allow advertisers to find you can also be used for harm. This can look like overly aggressive ad tactics, or even changing consumers’ self-perception after being targeted a certain way. In the most dangerous cases, advertisers can target groups with harmful messages, like targeting sick people with treatments that don’t actually work, ads that discriminate against different under-represented groups, and deceptive ads targeting stressed teenagers for army recruitment.
So what can we do? It starts with transparency. Ads and the targeting parameters used by companies should be public and available for anyone to see.
When Mozilla advertises on Instagram, we are going to tell you exactly what our ad says, who we are advertising to and why. Our ads themselves will do the same.
The full list of information for our Mozilla and Firefox ads can be found here.
Here’s an example:
Caption: Your heart is mysterious, but your Tarot interest is not. At least not to online advertisers. Find out how you got this ad.
Target: Scorpio + Oct/Nov birthday + interest in tarot cards
Rather than wait for legislation like the Social Media DATA Act and the EU’s Digital Services Act to pass, or for the ad platforms to act themselves, we’re going to show them how it can be done. All large platforms who operate ad networks — Facebook, Google, YouTube — should disclose targeting parameters on their platforms through publicly available APIs.
The health of the ad ecosystem is important to the future of the internet. This is an important step forward.
Want to know more about online advertising? Check out these resources.
Check My Ads
NYU Ad Observatory
Common Sense Media