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Big tech’s ad transparency tools still falling short: Research

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Despite the glaring deficiencies in their ad repositories, major players in the tech industry still have a considerable distance to cover in terms of improving transparency and functionality. This raises concerns about their readiness to combat misinformation and paid influence ahead of the June 2024 European elections. This situation occurs despite regulatory laws like the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) mandating companies to have a public searchable ad repository.

The research, a collaborative effort between Mozilla, a prominent software developer, and CheckFirst, a Finland-based disinformation research company, delves into the performance of ad transparency tools on platforms including Apple, Google, Meta, TikTok, Booking.com, AliExpress, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, Zalando and X. These platforms were compelled to introduce searchable public ad libraries following the DSA approximately six months ago.

This raises much concern about the readiness of these companies to combat misinformation and paid influence ahead of the June 2024 European elections.

According to the researchers, key findings from the evaluation highlight a wide variation among the platforms, with none meeting the criteria of a fully functional ad repository capable of providing researchers and civil society groups with comprehensive tools and data to monitor the impact of advertisements on elections.

“We find a huge variation among the platforms, but one thing is true across all of them: none is a fully functional ad repository and none will provide researchers and civil society groups with the tools and data they need to effectively monitor the impact of VLOs advertisements on Europe’s upcoming elections,” said investigators.

For instance, AliExpress’s repository was flagged for its lack of an API and minimal user interface, requiring a user account for access and encountering loading and display errors. Similarly, Apple App Store’s web repository and API were criticised for lacking crucial details on paid influence, such as targeting breakdown by country.

Furthermore, platforms like X have delivered ad transparency tools that barely register on the transparency scale, lacking essential data and functionalities crucial for meaningful research insights.

The report also pointed out disappointing aspects of other platforms, such as Bing’s limited data in the API and documentation, difficulties in linking ads on Booking.com to the web repository, and Google’s platforms still not allowing keyword searches after six years of progress.

A comprehensive analysis of the deficiencies in ad repositories of various companies. | Source: Mozilla

Challenges with platforms like Zalando were also noted, ranging from limited search functionality and accuracy issues to a slow-loading CSV file instead of a user-friendly web interface.

This deficiency presents a formidable barrier to independent researchers, impeding their ability to conduct a thorough analysis of the business strategies employed by the big tech, particularly those aimed at enhancing user engagement for increased ad views.

Here are the results of the stress test:

  • Lacks vital data and functionality: AliExpress, Bing, Snapchat, X, Zalando
  • Bare minimum data and functionality: Alphabet, Booking.com and Pinterest
  • Still has big gaps in data and functionality: Apple App Store, LinkedIn, Meta, and TikTok.
  • Ready for action: No platform

Despite the DSA’s stringent penalties of up to 6% of global annual turnover for non-compliance, tech giants seem reticent to embrace the transparency requirements fully. Rather than prioritising transparency, platforms appear to be engaging in what the report terms ‘compliance theatre,’ a phenomenon reminiscent of similar observations in privacy regulations. This suggests that some platforms focus more on revenue generation than on meeting legal compliance standards.

The researchers have also accepted that the report has some limitations. For example, the report dwells on topics like accessibility, user-friendliness, and scope of the ad repositories, it does not check the truthfulness of information.

“We do not assess the accuracy or truthfulness of the information, for example, whether the beneficiary information is correct. We, therefore, do not assess whether the ad repos and APIs accurately include branded or influencer or political content, also because allowance and policies vary,” said the report.

Researchers conclude with recommendations for improving and harmonizing ad repositories, including removing access barriers, providing more comprehensive data, enhancing search functionalities, and improving documentation.

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Kumar Hemant

Kumar Hemant

Deputy Editor at Candid.Technology. Hemant writes at the intersection of tech and culture and has a keen interest in science, social issues and international relations. You can contact him here: kumarhemant@pm.me

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