Meta, Google, X, TikTok, Apple still failing with ad transparency


A study shows that ad transparency tools requested by watchdogs are still vague on 11 major tech platforms, leaving users vulnerable to misinformation ahead of the election year.

In August 2023, the EU’s regulators mandated that Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) should publicly disclose their ad content, the natural or legal person on whose behalf the advertisement is displayed, recipients, and the ad reach. Such regulations aimed to tackle misinformation, particularly in anticipation of major election years worldwide.

In their efforts to comply, big tech companies have created ad repositories where ad-related information can be publicly searchable and checked.

However, a recent study by the non-profit organization Mozilla has shown that most of these repositories are still lacking clarity and functionality, failing in their purpose.

Mozilla and CheckFirst investigated AliExpress, Apple App Store, Bing, Booking.com, Alphabet’s Google Search and YouTube, LinkedIn, Meta, Pinterest, Snapchat, TikTok, X, and Zalando.

Mozilla report ad transparency
Source: Mozilla Foundation

The findings reveal that ad repositories frequently lack clarity regarding the entities behind ads, making the system susceptible to manipulation.

Meta discloses both the beneficiary and the payer, whereas many platforms only mention the "Advertiser" or "Sponsor" without additional details. TikTok, Bing, and Google also provide the registered location of the ad's payer.

“Who pays for ads and how they’re targeted is crucial in helping watchdogs look out for the public interest – whether that's fair elections, public health, or social justice. In short, if you see an ad telling you that climate change is a hoax, you might be interested to know if that ad’s paid for by the fossil fuel industry," commented Amaury Lesplingart, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of CheckFirst.

The accuracy testing uncovered numerous instances where ads visible in the user interface were absent from the ad repository, diminishing the effectiveness and reliability of the repositories as a transparency mechanism.

Effective navigation through ad repositories is hampered by a lack of filtering and sorting options. X's performance is particularly poor in this regard, making searching for historical content nearly impossible.

X’s ad repository lacks filtering and sorting features, and accessing ads is only possible through a cumbersome CSV export file. Moreover, the content of ads is not revealed, only a URL to the ads is provided, and there are deficiencies in targeting parameters and recipient data.

​​Apple, LinkedIn, and TikTok performed somewhat better, though only in comparison. Nonetheless, they still have notable gaps in data and functionality.

Researchers note that paid influencer content or 'branded content' is often absent from ad repositories. Despite many platforms permitting influencer content on their services, only a few of those analyzed maintain a repository specifically for branded or influencer content.

“Ad transparency tools are essential for platform accountability – a first line of defense, like smoke detectors. However, our research shows most of the world’s largest platforms are not offering functionally useful ad repositories. The current batch of tools exist, yes – but in some cases, that’s about all that can be said about them,” said Claire Pershan, the EU Advocacy Lead at Mozilla.


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