May 25, 2024


Under orders from the EU, tech giants have launched 11 advertising transparency tools. None of them are fit for purpose, according to a new study from Mozilla.

The tools provide libraries of data about online adverts. By exploring the repositories, researchers can identify the funders and techniques behind the ads. At least, that’s the idea.

The libraries are obligatory under the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), a law designed to safeguard online environments.

By shining a light on ad content and targeting, the EU hopes to tackle disinformation and manipulation. The impact could be global. Because platforms often respond to international rules with wholesale changes, the libraries could roll out worldwide.

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With the biggest election year in history now underway, the stakes are high. But tech platforms appear poorly prepared. Mozilla found their tools are riddled with bugs, faulty features, and missing data.

To stress-test the libraries, the Firefox maker partnered with Check First, a Finnish pioneer of algorithmic analysis.

The duo investigated 11 tools used by the world’s biggest platforms: Google Search, Meta, X, YouTube, LinkedIn, the Apple App Store, TikTok, Snapchat, AliExpress, Bing, Booking.com, and Zalando.

They tested the tools across over 20 parameters informed by the DSA. The framework covered functionality, data accessibility, and accuracy.

After inspecting each platform, the researchers discovered big shortcomings in every tool.

As a result, the people behind the ads could remain hidden. They could also game the system.

Funders in the shadows

Over email, the study authors told TNW that the libraries’ ad content was poorly catalogued across the platforms. This left data gaps to exploit.

Adverts that violate election rules could evade any observers. With their actions hard to detect, bad actors could sneak in misleading ads backed by nefarious sponsors. 

Another issue was insufficient detail on ad sponsors — which makes it hard to know who’s paying for influence.

Search functionalities were also frequently inadequate. On Google, for instance, it’s not possible to search for ads by keywords. Meanwhile, no repository offered both sorting and filtering. 

X, formerly Twitter, received the strongest condemnation. The platform’s library didn’t disclose ad content and lacked basic functionality. It also left big gaps in targeting parameters and recipient data.

“X’s transparency tools are an utter disappointment,” said Claire Pershan, EU Advocacy Lead at Mozilla.

These shortcomings will come as little surprise to the EU. X’s ad repository features in the bloc’s DSA investigation against the platform.

Election manipulation

Online platforms are influential tools in election campaigns. They’re open to exploitation by both domestic parties and international adversaries.

One recent pro-Russian Facebook campaign targeted Moldova. Another aimed anti-Ukraine propaganda at audiences in Germany and France.

Policies designed to tackle these tactics aren’t always enforced. External researchers can cover their shortcomings.

TikTok, for instance, doesn’t officially allow political adverts. But CheckFirst has nonetheless discovered these ads on the platform.

“As we are into this major election year, the likelihood of these tactics being used more aggressively is high,” the researchers said.

“Ensuring robust transparency and enabling functional and comprehensive ad libraries is crucial for safeguarding the elections from such manipulative influences.”





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