Facebook Blocks Independent Tools That Track Its Political Ad Targeting

American news site ProPublica recently reported that Facebook has blocked tools that expose its ad targeting methods. The nonprofit investigative journalism site said that its own developed tool, along with similar tools from Mozilla and Who Targets Me, have all stopped working due to changes made by Facebook.

For over a year and a half, ProPublica had been maintaining a database that includes all political ads as well as “the segments of the population advertisers are paying to reach.” ProPublica was able to do this using help from volunteers who agreed to install a browser extension that shared such data with it, namely, the ads a user sees as well as Facebook’s ‘reason’ for targeting this particular user with these ads.

All Under Facebook’s Terms of Service

Facebook, on its part, defended its behavior, saying that it regularly ‘improves’ its system in a way that prevents unauthorized access by third parties, “like web browser plugins to keep people’s information safe.”

A Facebook spokesperson said that the changes are part of “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.”

A few months ago, Facebook had urged ProPublica to cease its ad transparency project. The social network had acknowledged the importance of such a project but insisted that the company will be enforcing its existing terms of service.

Facebook has launched its own archive of political ads as an alternative to the now-defunct tools. However, as ProPublica points out, “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.”

“Just this month, we noticed four groups running ads that haven’t been in Facebook’s archive,” the publication added. Those were the National Rifle Association, an electoral reform advocacy group targeting Bernie Sanders supporters, a local anti-corruption group, and a union advertising to Democrats about health care policy.

ProPublica contacted Facebook about those irregularities and the social network responded by canceling the ads and announcing that it is investigating the issue. Facebook also announced its plan to expand its political ads archive to several countries this year and that a global tool will be ready by the end of June.