Sen. Markey: Facebook's Harmful Ad Practices Continue

Facebook HQ
(Image credit: Facebook)

Another day, another stern letter from legislators to Facebook about their social media practices. 

This letter  — to founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg — came from Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Reps. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) and Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), saying the company continues to engage in misleading targeted ad policies.

The legislators pointed out that in congressional testimony, Facebook global head of safety Antigone Davis said that young people could only be targeted on the site based on gender, age or location, but that new research showed that Facebook itself targets ads to people using a machine learning system tied to personal data, including browsing history.

The letter follows a complaint by a coalition of groups last week, led by Reset Australia and Fairplay, which said their analysis found that the company continued to collect teen data “to fuel its ad-delivery system.” While advertisers may not be able to target teens, they said, the company's algorithm's can.

Also: Haugen Hearing: Sen. Blumenthal Calls It Facebook’s Big Tobacco Moment

“Facebook’s announcement that it would limit ad targeting to users under the age of 18 implicitly acknowledged the harms that targeted advertisements pose to young people, and Facebook explicitly stated it was committed to taking a ‘more precautionary approach’ in its advertising practices when it announced its policy change,” the lawmakers said in their letter to Zuckerberg. “Unfortunately, new research suggests that harmful advertising practices on Facebook continue.”

“[I]t’s wrong to say that because we show data in our transparency tools it’s automatically used for ads,” Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said of the coalition’s complaint. "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."

Markey, Trahan and Castor asked for the answers to the following questions by Dec. 13:

1.) “Since Facebook’s announcement [last July] that it will limit ad targeting to users under 18, what specifically has Facebook done to restrict advertisers’ abilities to reach young users?

2.) “Determine in part what commercial content users under 18 on your platform see? If yes, please describe the program in detail.

a. “What types of user data does this system collect or employ?

b. “Does this system collect or employ data from users under the age of 13?

c. “How long has Facebook used this system?

3.) “Will Facebook commit to releasing its algorithmic process for ad targeting to be studied by independent researchers? If not, why not?

4.) “Please describe in detail the ways in which Facebook uses data about the interest and browsing history of users under 18.

5.) “Has Facebook conducted any internal research on the effects of targeted advertising on

users under 18? If so, please provide this research in its entirety.

6.) “Has Facebook communicated with potential advertisers about Facebook’s advertising ‘Delivery System’ and its ability to target users under 18? If so, please describe these communications in detail.

7.) “Has Facebook’s advertising ‘Delivery System’ ever served an advertisement to a user under 18 that promoted weight-loss, nicotine or alcohol use?

8.) “Will Facebook commit to ending targeted advertising to users under 18 on all of its platforms? If not, why not?”

Markey, Castor and Trahan teamed up last April to discourage Facebook from plans to create a kids’ version of its Instagram platform. Those Instagram Kids plans have been under a klieg light in D.C. and elsewhere after whistleblower Frances Haugen turned over internal research to Congress showing the company knew that some young people were hurt by the platform. Facebook countered that the same research found that most kids said they were helped by being on Instagram, adding that it could use both findings to help improve the site.

John Eggerton

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.