Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, said Tuesday it plans to limit advertisers’ ability to target users based on certain sensitive categories. Starting next year, it will remove thousands of “Detailed Targeting” keywords to target ads to specific users in categories such as health, race or ethnicity, political affiliation, religion and sexual orientation.
Targeted advertising has long been central to the company’s massive digital ads business. But for years, Facebook has faced criticism for allowing highly specific targeting that could, for example, allow advertisers to direct racist ads to users based on their activity on its platforms. In 2019, Facebook settled several lawsuits that alleged its advertising platform allowed for discrimination in housing, employment and credit ads. As part of the settlement, it set up a new portal for such ads. Tuesday’s announcement marks the broadest action the company has taken yet to address concerns related to ad targeting.
In a blog post Tuesday, Meta (FB) vice president of product marketing for ads Graham Mudd said the move is a “difficult decision” made to “better match people’s evolving expectations of how advertisers may reach them on our platform and address feedback from civil rights experts, policymakers and other stakeholders on the importance of preventing advertisers from abusing the targeting options we make available.”
The announcement comes as the company faces scrutiny over the real-world harms caused by its platforms that were revealed in the “Facebook Papers,” a trove of internal documents offering unprecedented insight into some of the company’s biggest problems. The documents were provided to lawmakers by former employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen, and obtained by dozens of news organizations, including CNN.
In an announcement that coincided with its scramble to contain the fallout from the Facebook Papers, the company announced last month that it would change its name to Meta. It also said last week it will stop using facial-recognition software that could automatically recognize people in photos and videos on its Facebook app (although the company may still use such software in other products now and in the future).
Even after Tuesday’s announcement, there will still be thousands of other detailed targeting categories that are not considered sensitive, such as users who are interested in football or more general categories like age, gender and location, that advertisers will still be able to use. That leaves open the possibility of tangential terms being used to target the same audiences they previously reached using sensitive keywords.
“We strongly believe that the best advertising experiences are personalized,” Mudd said. He added that advertisers will have other options for targeting users, such as directing ads to people who have engaged with their pages or videos.
The change will apply globally to the Facebook, Instagram and Messenger apps, as well as Meta’s “audience network,” through which it places ads on third-party apps. It will start rolling out on January 19, 2022, when advertisers will no longer be able to select keywords from sensitive categories for new ad campaigns, and in March, existing campaigns reliant on such keywords will no longer function, according to the company.
The company places users in the categories based on their interactions on the platform, such as which pages they like and which ads they click on. Targeting keywords that will now be removed include terms like “Catholic church” and “chemotherapy.”
Meta also said it plans to give users greater control over what kinds of ads they see.
“Today, people can opt to see fewer ads related to politics, parenting, alcohol and pets,” Mudd said. “Early next year, we will be giving people control of more types of ad content, including gambling and weight loss, among others.”
While the ad targeting changes will apply to Meta’s existing products, it’s not clear whether the company will apply the same rules to future platforms as it pursues its ambitious plan to build the “metaverse,” a new, immersive version of the internet using VR and AR technologies.