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Facebook and Signal are fighting over advertising and privacy policies.


Most of the attention focused on Facebook this week was focused on the company’s board of directors and its decision to allow the platform to ban Donald Trump. Meanwhile, a stranger controversy over Facebook’s ads and privacy policy has unfolded between the social media giant and the encrypted messaging service Signal. Signal initiated the dispute on May 4 when Jun Harada, the company’s growth and communications director, posted on the Signal blog about a series of ads that Harada said Signal tried to post on Instagram. Instead, Facebook blocked the ads and closed Signal’s advertising account.

The ads themselves are designed to promote Signal’s end-to-end encryption by highlighting how much data other companies like Facebook are collecting about their users. In screenshots posted with Harada’s post, the ads are tailored to the people who see them using details that are supposedly provided through Facebook’s own advertising platform. So a sample ad in the blog post says, “You got this ad because you’re a teacher, but more importantly, you’re a Leo (and single). This ad uses your location to see that you are in Moscow. You enjoy supporting sketch comedy and this ad thinks you’re dragging. ”Another informs the reader,“ You got this ad because you’re a K-pop-loving chemical engineer. This ad uses your location to see that you are in Berlin. And you have a new baby. And just moved. And you’ve really been feeling these pregnancy exercises lately. “

Harada wrote that by using the information Facebook collects to target advertisements in the ads themselves, Signal was hoping to “show you the personal information that Facebook collects about you and sells access”. It’s a smart way to leverage Facebook’s own advertising infrastructure to highlight how much the platform knows about users. In fact, it is precisely this lack of clarity that is why many data protection laws and regulations have focused on transparency requirements for companies that collect and process data – so that their customers know exactly what and why is being collected, and have the ability to access it themselves Access data.

But downloading a large file with all of the information Facebook has gathered about you (which you can do!) Is probably not something most people will get into, let alone comb through. Catchy, clearly visible representations of this data, such as the replicated signal displays, are therefore an interesting and potentially valuable tool for raising people’s awareness of their digital privacy. No wonder Facebook would be dissatisfied with them.

Other than that, according to Facebook, Signal never tried to get these ads on Instagram. In response to the post, Facebook made the following statement: “This is a stunt by Signal that never tried to actually run these ads – and we didn’t close their ad account for it. If Signal tried to run the ads, some of them would have been disapproved as our advertising policies prohibit ads claiming that you have a specific illness or sexual orientation, as Signal should know. But of course it was never their goal to run the ads – it was about to advertise. “

In response, Signal then tweeted: “We absolutely tried to do this. The ads have been rejected and Facebook has deactivated our advertising account. These are real screenshots, as Facebook should know. ”The tweet was accompanied by two screenshots showing that a Facebook advertising account had been deactivated. Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne replied (again on Twitter) that the screenshots were “from the beginning of March, when the advertising account was temporarily deactivated for a few days due to an unrelated payment problem”. And repeated: “The ads themselves were never rejected because they were never posted by Signal to Advertise. The ad account has been available since early March and the ads that don’t violate our policies may have been running since then. ”In fact, Facebook has in the past allowed some very specific ads that use the company’s data on individuals. For example, t-shirt company Solid Gold Bomb specifically promoted personalized t-shirts to Facebook users with slogans that were customized using their personal information (e.g., “Never underestimate a woman who loves Stephen King and in April was born “or” I am a VET who sings BEEF EATING and KARAOKE. “)

The back and forth between Facebook and Signal is so bizarre it’s hard to say what to make of it. Obviously a company is lying about what happened (or at least spreading the truth), but why? Going back to the original Signal blog post, it stands out (at least to me) that Harada never quite comes out and says that Facebook blocked the ads or disabled Signal’s advertising account, although the post definitely strongly suggests that it happened . For example, Harada wrote, “We wanted to buy some Instagram ads. … The ad would just show some of the information gathered about the viewer using the advertising platform. Facebook wasn’t in that idea. ”And after that sentence was a screenshot of an advertising account that was disabled. A later sentence reads: “Apparently it is enough to be transparent about how advertisements use people’s data to get banned; In the world of Facebook, the only acceptable use is to hide what you are doing from your audience. “

But nowhere in the post does Harada specifically state that Signal actually tried to purchase these ads or that his account was suspended. On the other hand, the later May 4 tweet from Signal’s Twitter account specifically states that the company tried to run the ads and they were rejected, resulting in Signal’s ad account with Facebook being disabled. That makes it hard to write all of this off as a major misunderstanding or misleading blog post stretching out a hypothetical situation. It’s a strange reminder of how hard it is to know who to trust with online privacy – and how complicated those issues really are.

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It’s true that if Signal tried to run these ads, some of the sample ads they posted on their blog appear to be in violation of Facebook’s policy on ads that don’t contain “personal attributes,” including claims about “race.” A person’s “ethnicity, religion”, belief, age, sexual orientation or practices, gender identity, disability, state of health (including physical or mental health), financial status, electoral status, union membership, criminal record or name. ” Example, according to Facebook’s own guidelines, okay to include the line “Find black singles today” in an ad, but not “Meet other black singles near you” and it’s good to advertise “depression counseling” but not to say an ad titled “Treat Your Anxiety With These Helpful Meditations.” I can understand some of the reasons Facebook kept these attributes out of ads – for example, the possibility that other people could see these ads and accidentally learn personal information or make incorrect assumptions. And if Signal lies that these ads are being blocked from showing, I can understand Facebook’s frustration over the criticism for something it didn’t.

But I also think that the best way Facebook could respond to this whole weird saga, instead of fighting Signal on Twitter, is to steal that idea and have those ads (or some version of them, probably without the Signal logo ) Make it clear to your users how many personal details they know – and how really transparent they are with this knowledge.

Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University studying emerging technologies, public policy, and society.


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