Groups Say Facebook Continues Teen-Targeted Ads

A Reset Australia/Fairplay study about Facebook

A coalition of groups spanning public health, privacy, consumer advocacy and more are accusing Facebook of continuing to harvest personal data from teens to target advertising to them and is asking the company to stop what it calls "surveillance advertising" to those youth.

The groups, led by Reset Australia and Fairplay, cited Facebook's July 2021 announcement that it was restricting targeted advertising to teens on Facebook, Messenger and Instagram, but they say an analysis conducted by Fairplay, Global Action Plan UK, and Reset Australia found that the company continued to collect teen data "to fuel its ad delivery system," saying that while advertisers may not be able to target teens, the company's algorithm's can.

In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the groups said Facebook needs to end the use of AI to optimize the delivery of ads to young people who are most vulnerable to them. "[W]hile Facebook said 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 groups told Zuckerberg, citing the analysis.

The groups said that conversion APIs (including Facebook Pixel and SPK), which help optimize ad targeting, are still operational on teen accounts, meaning they can still receive personalized ads based on their interests.

"The replacement of targeting ‘selected by advertisers’ with targeting ‘selected by an AI delivery system’ does not represent a demonstrable improvement for children," the analysis asserts.

"It is extremely disappointing that Facebook appeared to take a legitimate step forward, but it was nothing more than a PR play," said Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay. "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."

Among the groups signing on to the letter in addition to Fairplay (formerly Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood) and Reset Australia include Consumer Federation of America, Parents Television and Media Council, Center for Digital Democracy, Common Sense, and dozens of others.

“We haven’t seen the report, but it’s wrong to say that because we show data in our transparency tools it’s automatically used for ads," said Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne. "We don’t use data from our advertisers' and partners' websites and apps to personalize ads to people under 18. The reason this information shows up in our transparency tools is because teens visit sites or apps that use our business tools. We want to provide transparency into the data we receive, even if it's not used for ads personalization." 

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.