Mark Zuckerberg has grown very wealthy on the strength of the advertising platform he has built, which enables advertisers to hock their wares with pinpoint precision at the eyeballs most likely to belong to customers. Facebook’s ad-targeting technology is indeed a very impressive achievement — but apparently Facebook doesn’t want people to know about it.

That’s the only logical conclusion that can be drawn from the company’s action against messaging app developer Signal, which wanted to run a campaign on Facebook-owned Instagram. The ads — had they run — would have been highly targeted, and included multi-variant fill-in-the-blanks text that would have informed users just how very targeted they were.

Signal, which promotes its app on the strength of its privacy features and lack of tracking, intended the campaign to highlight just how much information Facebook gathers on its users and sells to advertisers — and just how granular that information is.

But a company blog post lamented that “Facebook wasn’t into that”.

Signal’s Jun Harada, Head of Growth and Communication, wrote that “Facebook is more than willing to sell visibility into people’s lives, unless it’s to tell people about how their data is being used.”

Personalised ads by Signal
Examples of the type of ads Signal intended to run on Instagram. Each user would have seen a version tailored according to the information Facebook-owned Instagram sold to the advertiser.

According to the blog, Signal understands that people know about ad targeting and they accept it for the most part. After all, Facebook is free, and people have to get paid somehow. What they may not realise is the level of personal detail that advertisers can use. Signal’s ads used the tools provided by Instagram to any advertiser to expose that.

The incident comes at a sensitive time for Facebook, which is facing a threat to its business model thanks to a newfound focus on privacy around the industry but in particular from Apple. A change in the way iOS treats ad-tracking — making it opt-in rather than opt-out and requiring developers to ask users on an app by app basis — has turned an uncomfortable spotlight on the extent to which it relies on users allowing their data to be collected.

Facebook argues that it protects users’ privacy and that its tools help advertisers, including small developers. Nonetheless it acknowledges that Apple’s shift to a model more dependent on user consent will cost it money.

Literally censoring a developer’s ads for attempting to be transparent about its use of customer information can hardly help its case.

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