8 Sketchy Facebook Ad Policies You’ll Want to Know About

Facebook is a pretty great app to scroll through when you’re bored and looking for something to entertain you. It’s a great place to click through photos on your college buddies’ profiles. And the platform makes it fun and easy to share interesting links and news stories with your network. But there are plenty of facts about Facebook that will make you mad, and a wide array of reasons why you might want to stop using Facebook.

One of the best reasons to kick your addiction to the world’s most popular social network is the way that it compromises your privacy in order to show you ads. Those ads appear not only on Facebook’s website and apps, but also in other apps and around the internet. Many people don’t really know much about Facebook’s ad policies, or the ways that the social networking giant collects and handles their data. Do you know about Facebook’s most sketchy ad policies?

1. Facebook enables advertisers to choose the race of the users who see their ads

Azerty keyboard of a laptop computer

Facebook advertisers may be discriminating based on race | Loic Venance/Getty Images

ProPublica recently reported that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has “serious concerns” about Facebook’s practice of allowing advertisers to include or exclude people who have an “affinity” with specific ethnic groups, like African-Americans, Hispanics or Asian-Americans. Gillian B. White reports for The Atlantic that it’s a big civil rights problem if Facebook is allowing its advertisers to discriminate based on race.

For advertisers, Facebook’s ability to enable them to target a specific audience is its primary strength. Advertisers are identifying and marketing their products to very specific groups. But Facebook’s ad policies enable marketers to choose not only who they want to see their ads, but also to choose groups who will never see those ads.

When placing an ad on Facebook, advertisers can exclude people with any given educational level, financial status, political affiliation, or “ethnic affinity.” Targeting ads for housing, credit, or employment based on race, gender, or sexual orientation violates federal civil rights laws including the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and Title VII.

2. Facebook uses 98 personal data points to target ads to you

man's hand using smartphone

Facebook tracks other sites you visit when you’re logged in | iStock.com/Pinkypills

Caitlin Dewey reports for The Washington Post that Facebook uses 98 personal data points to target ads to you. Dewey notes that the snapshots these data points comprise “are frequently incomplete and flawed.” She explains that these data points “rely on lots of assumptions. But generally speaking, they’re good enough to have made Facebook an advertising giant.”

Facebook tracks your on-site activity, such as the pages you like and the ads you click. But it also pays attention to the brand of your device, your location settings, and the type of internet connection you’re using. And more surprisingly, Facebook tracks virtually every other website you visit when you’re logged in to the social network. And Dewey notes that even when you’re logged off, Facebook still follows a lot of your browsing. The social network is alerted any time you visit a page with a Like or a Share button, or an ad that’s sourced from its Atlas network. Additionally, the company provides publishers with a piece of code, called Facebook Pixel, that enables them (and the social network) to log their Facebook-using visitors.

The social network also offers marketers the ability to target ads according to data compiled by companies like Experian, Acxiom, and Epsilon, which build profiles over a period of years using government and public records, consumer contests, warranties, surveys, and private commercial sources. When combined with the information users give Facebook through their profile and their clicks, “you end up with what is arguably the most complete consumer profile on earth: a snapshot not only of your Facebook activity, but your behaviors elsewhere in the online (and offline!) worlds.”

3. Facebook blocks ad blockers

Man looking at his laptop

Your ad blocker will not stop Facebook | iStock.com

For the most part, it’s your choice whether you want to use an ad blocker to stop advertisers from following you around the web and trying to get you to buy their products. But The New York Times reported that as of August 2016, Facebook “flipped a switch on its desktop website that essentially renders all ad blockers — the programs that prevent websites from displaying ads on the page when a user visits the site — useless.”

The change was criticized as a move to undermine user choice. And it also angered privacy advocates, who support ad blockers due to their ability to prevent the use of tracking software. (The kind of software that monitors users’ browsing habits across the web without their knowledge or even their explicit consent.) The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook stood to gain financially by “forcing” ads on its users.

From a technical standpoint, it’s easy for Facebook to circumvent the ad blocker that you’ve installed in your browser because it loads ads into its platform itself. As the Journal notes, “Many online publishers and media companies rely on third-party companies to help display ads on their webpages and services, which can make them more easily identifiable to blocking technologies.”

4. Facebook shows ads in Audience Network sites and apps, even if you aren’t a Facebook user

Hipster using a touch screen smart phone hands close up

You can see ads from Facebook without even having an account | iStock.com/demaerre

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2016 that Facebook had just announced it would show ads to all consumers who visit websites and apps in its Audience Network ad network. Previously, it had only shown ads to users of those third-party properties when they were also members of its social network. But the changes enabled the social network to track and show ads to people who don’t have Facebook accounts. “The change is a subtle one, but it could mean Facebook will soon help to sell and place a much larger portion of the video and display ads that appear across the Internet,” Jack Marshall reported.

As Amar Toor reported for The Verge, what the change meant is that Facebook was tracking non-users around the internet. The social network uses cookies, Like buttons, and other plugins embedded on third-party sites to track members and non-members. It can collect information about all internet users, and use that data to target ads to those people. Wired’s Brian Barrett reported that “ad networks aren’t just an inescapable part of the internet, they pay for most of it.” But many people are still unnerved by the idea that Facebook can track them, even if they don’t have a Facebook account. 

5. Facebook haphazardly censors promotions

man sits at a computer while he works

Facebook’s promotions are sometimes censored | iStock.com

BuzzFeed reports that Facebook has been “haphazardly censoring promotions” for a variety of marijuana-related content, “including news stories about racial disparities in pot arrests, links to sites selling legal paraphernalia, ads for TV shows and books about cannabis, and pages that provide information about the law.” Quartz compiled a list of “all the things Facebook censors hate most,” noting that Facebook’s censors overzealously go after content from “groups across nearly every walk of life.” And The Kernel reported in 2015 that Facebook still had a problem with ads showing anything related to breasts.

Facebook censors individual users’ posts on a wide variety of topics, which is certainly a problem. But whether or not a business will be allowed to show you an ad related to a topic that Facebook deems objectionable might depend on how big that business is. At least when it comes to groups promoting marijuana-related content, BuzzFeed found that “small businesses seem to be disproportionately affected by inconsistencies in the enforcement of these policies, while larger and more mainstream companies advertising the same content remain unaffected.”

Groups that are simply trying to share information, and are willing to pay Facebook to boost their content, have routinely been subjected to censorship, even if taking a common sense look at their ads or at the content they’re promoting reveals nothing offensive or objectionable. 

6. Facebook uses your web browsing history to target ads to you

Designer Sitting At Meeting Table

Facebook uses your browser history to target your interests | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Advertising Age reported in 2014 that Facebook was using consumers’ web browsing history to target ads to them. At the time, Facebook had already enabled retargeting to users who had previously visited specific websites and apps. But the publication reported that “what Facebook is now enabling is far more expansive in terms how it uses data for ad targeting. In a move bound to stir up some controversy given the company’s reach and scale, the social network will not be honoring the do-not-track setting on web browsers.”

Historically, interest-based targeting relied on users’ direct declarations of their likes and interests in their profiles and in the pages that they’d liked. But Facebook began using passive data, such as where users navigated on their computers and phones, to enable advertisers to more accurately reach their target audience. According to Advertising Age, “The social network’s footprint is visible across the web in the form of the ‘like’ button; a Facebook user can be recognized on sites where the button is encoded, whether they ‘like’ something or not.”

At the time, ProPublica traced the history of Facebook’s Like button and examined the way it had been sending data from a users’ browsing history to Facebook. Facebook repeatedly promised that it wasn’t using the data for commercial purposes — which ultimately proved untrue as Facebook made its advertising operation more advanced.

7. Facebook collects metadata that can reveal just as much about you as government surveillance

student studying

Government surveillance and Facebook have a few things in common | iStock.com

The Atlantic reported in 2015 that data collection by companies like Facebook “can reveal as much about a person as government surveillance.” As Kaveh Waddell reported, “Companies like Google and Facebook comb through customers’ usage statistics in order to precisely tailor marketing to their users, a valuable service that advertisers pay the companies dearly to access.” But there’s no guarantee that what’s collected by the private sector will stay in the private sector, since the government has a wide variety of ways to get data from private companies.

Waddell reported, “When users sign onto Google or Facebook, they choose to give up their personal information in order to get valuable services from the companies, which sets up a dynamic fundamentally different from government surveillance.” But critics think that more often than not, “user consent is not enough to justify data collection, because of the lack of transparency in the process.”

Many users don’t really understand the amount of data and metadata that they’re giving up, or what kinds of very personal insights might be hiding in the data that they’re handing over. The New York Times editorial board noted that metadata in the hands of the government is a dangerous force, and “the surreptitious collection of metadata. . . fundamentally alters the relationship between individuals and their government.”

8. Facebook’s huge repository of data enables other companies to draw conclusions about your socioeconomic status

Customers check a new Iphone 7 exhibited at Puerta del Sol Apple Store

Facebook likely knows about your socioeconomic status | Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The Nation reports that the huge repository of data that Facebook compiles on its users can give advertisers clues about your socioeconomic status. Astra Taylor and Jathan Sadowski warn that “companies can smuggle proxies for race, sex, indebtedness, and so on into big-data sets and then draw correlations and conclusions that have discriminatory effects.” Privacy advocates worry that digital data, collected by Facebook and companies like it, could be used to “digitally redline” unwanted groups as customers, employees, tenants, or recipients of credit.

While credit scores and consumer reports are flawed, they are “immensely consequential” in many facets of people’s lives. They determine whether you’re able to obtain a loan, find a job, or rent a home. The boundary between traditional credit scoring and marketing has blurred, and algorithms have been devised to predict spending and whether somebody will make or lose money. Whether you like it or not, the information that Facebook collects on you as you scroll through its platform or make your way around the internet can be used to infer a lot more than which pair of shoes an advertiser should try to get you to buy.