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Mozilla study finds Big Tech’s ad transparency tools still terrible

Efforts by tech giants to be more transparent about the ads they serve remain a work in progress at best, according to a report on ad transparency tools. The report comes about half a year after the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) rules for large platforms came into effect, requiring companies to provide searchable public ad libraries. Companies include: Apple, Google, Meta, TikTok and X.

In some cases, notably (but not limited to) Working with CheckFirst, a Finnish disinformation research company.

The report’s main conclusion is that platforms’ ad oversight tools fail to deliver the transparency and democratic accountability expected of them in a critical year for global elections.

We found huge differences between these platforms, but one thing is true about all of them: none is a fully functional ad repository, and none can serve researchers and citizens alike. Social groups have the tools and data they need to effectively monitor the impact of VLOs [very large online platforms and search engines] AliExpress and X are the worst examples of those tech giants, the report authors wrote. Do Offering an ad library (which Amazon has so far avoided offering), then adding a line of damnation with faint praise: “[W]It’s hard for us to tell you which one is best. “

A lack of critical data and effective research platform tools means independent researchers still face significant obstacles in generating data-driven insights into the impact of big tech. Without robust public interest research, how can the world’s richest companies be held accountable for business models that often rely on increasing user engagement to increase ad views?

Consider, for example, the discussion surrounding social media use and teen mental health. Ad transparency tools enable external researchers to study the types of paid messaging targeting young people on different platforms, which can help reveal any problematic dynamics and platform incentives. But ad tech giants apparently aren’t making this research easy.

Nonetheless, the stark fact is that The fact that 11 of the world’s largest tech companies offer ad repositories (most of which do so as a direct result of EU regulation) is, as the study authors argue, “in and of itself” a fundamental form of progress. Although in their view, the tools they provide do not yet support researchers properly.

The pan-EU DSA provides for penalties of up to 6% of global annual turnover for non-compliance. Therefore, enforcement of poor performance can result in significant fines. But despite this regulatory risk, the report suggests that tech giants are not entirely committed to clarifying targeted messaging to inject direct revenue into their coffers.

Compliance Theater

In fact, not a single platform has received a “Ready to Action” green light assessment from Mozilla and CheckFirst. Meta has been operating the ad library the longest and has one of the most mature products, but its ad library still has “significant gaps in data and functionality,” the report said. Likewise, Apple, LinkedIn and TikTok have had similar failures. Alphabet (Google), and Pinterest were assessed as offering worse “minimum” efforts.

In addition to the aforementioned “complete disappointment” with AliExpress and X, the report also gave Bing, SnapChat, and Zalando the same overall red rating, saying their transparency tools also lacked important data and functionality.

Compliance theater is a concept familiar to EU privacy watchers when it comes to designing consent processes to collect web users’ permission to track and analyze their online activities for micro-targeted advertising. Judging from the report’s findings, a similar situation may emerge with platforms’ early responses to the DSA’s advertising transparency requirements. Many appear to be aware of how likely they are to get away with it, perhaps to test how committees tasked with overseeing compliance will respond; or simply because they prefer to devote more resources to generating revenue rather than addressing legal compliance issues.

About a dozen tech giants that offer very large platforms and/or search engines (referred to in the report as VLOs) face the most stringent DSA regulations, including requirements to publish ad libraries. Mozilla and CheckFirst stress-tested ad libraries related to the following e-commerce, social network, and marketplace platforms between December 2023 and January 2024: AliExpress, Alphabet (Google Search and YouTube), Apple App Store, Bing,, LinkedIn, Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Pinterest, SnapChat, TikTok, X and Zalando — conduct independent tests designed to evaluate key issues such as the functionality and reliability of the tools.

“We examine factors such as the depth of information about the ad and its advertisers, the targeting criteria used, and the reach of the ad. In addition, we evaluate the completeness of the ad repository, the availability of historical data, and the reliability of the tools provided. Accessibility, consistency, and documentation,” the authors wrote, noting that most (but not all) platforms offer separate network-based ad repositories and APIs—so they evaluated these discrete implementations individually.

‘Significant gap’

They did note that some progress had been made since testing the transparency tool. Therefore, this study is only a snapshot of the situation approximately half a year after the VLO compliance deadline at the end of August.

They also haven’t assessed some deeper factors, such as the accuracy of the information the platforms provide about who pays for ads. Influencer or brand content will also not be evaluated. But testing can analyze the pace of progress since compliance day and allow for a basic comparison of platform offerings and shortcomings.

Several key findings in the report include concerns related to accuracy issues and missing data. “ohOur accuracy tests found that in many cases ads in the UI were not found in the ad repository,” they noted, adding: “This may limit the repository’s usefulness and trustworthiness as a transparency tool Spend. “

We believe there is a significant gap between the spirit of EU regulation and the practice of these repositories, which are designed to “facilitate oversight and research into new risks posed by online advertising distribution,” the report authors concluded, And pointed out that taking X as an example, Only a CSV file is available for download, which they also found to be “weirdly slow.” (This type of history access, they argue, “is only useful if you already know everything there is to know about the ad you’re searching for,” suggesting that after the split billionaire owner Elon Musk Under the leadership, X is essentially trying to undermine independent research, even though he claims to respect the law.)

The social network, formerly known as Twitter, is the first platform to be formally investigated by the EU for alleged breaches of the DSA, including over researchers’ access to data. The investigation was launched in December and is still ongoing. But if DSA violations are proven, X will first be subject to a hefty fine.

It also highlighted how the platform was breaching EU transparency rules and, at the time of writing, had not made its ad library available at all after Amazon obtained a temporary exemption from the obligation from the EU Court of Justice last autumn.

The High Court later overturned the decision late last month, so the e-commerce giant will eventually have to put its promotional content online for external review. But, as the report demonstrates, it’s easy for platforms to inject intentional friction into transparency tools, whether through restrictive design or sloppy implementation or both. This undermines researchers’ ability to question the social impact of technology and advertising-driven business models, because it makes finding, sorting, and filtering data about the ads they’ve monetized much more difficult than it should be.

The report contains a series of recommendations to improve platform transparency, including design changes that tech giants can implement, such as exposing ad libraries without requiring a login; allowing unlimited browsing; and providing enhanced search capabilities, such as support for keywords, advertisers, Search by country and date range as well as allow results to be filtered and sorted, to name a few of the suggested changes.

They also recommended that enforcers take steps such as developing advertising transparency guidelines that set minimum standards for what platforms must make available in network repositories and APIs; and requiring the use of standardized APIs for research access to improve usability and enable cross-platform research.

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