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Signal banned for booking obviously targeted ads? That story's too good to be true, Facebook claims

Antisocial giant dismisses chat app rival's 'stunt' in escalating war of words

Encrypted messaging service Signal on Tuesday made a show of trolling Instagram and its parent company Facebook by creating ads that incorporated audience targeting categories into its ad copy.

The ads address viewers by identifying targeting criteria like lifestyle categories, occupation, geographic location, and personal interests presumably gleaned through online data collection.

Apart from the marketing value of tweaking a dominant messaging rival, Signal did so, it claims, to expose the inner workings of ad tech data collection.

"The way most of the internet works today would be considered intolerable if translated into comprehensible real world analogs, but it endures because it is invisible," the secure-messaging org explained in a blog post.

Signal suggests its gambit was intolerable to Instagram and Facebook, claiming that Facebook banned its ad account for exposing ad tech data harvesting.

"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," Signal said.

"Being transparent about how ads use people’s data is apparently enough to get banned; in Facebook’s world, the only acceptable usage is to hide what you’re doing from your audience."

screenshot of Signal ads

The ads Signal said it tried to book ... Click to enlarge

Facebook, however, has dismissed Signal's account of what happened as a marketing scheme.

"This is a stunt by Signal, [which] never even tried to actually run these ads – and we didn’t shut down their ad account for trying to do so," a Facebook spokesperson told The Register in an email.

"If Signal had tried to run the ads, a couple of them would have been rejected because our advertising policies prohibit ads that assert that you have a specific medical condition or sexual orientation, as Signal should know. But of course, running the ads was never their goal – it was about getting publicity."

Signal did not respond to a request for further comment, though the organization's Twitter account argued back it "absolutely did try to run these. The ads were rejected, and Facebook disabled our ad account."

'Unrelated payments issue'

Via Twitter, Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne wrote that the screenshots Signal presented in its blog post "are from early March, when the ad account was briefly disabled for a few days due to an unrelated payments issue."

Osborne reiterated the claim that Facebook never rejected the ads because Signal never tried to run them. "The ad account has been available since early March, and the ads that don't violate our policies could have run since then," he said.

Facebook's Advertising Policies, however, leave a lot of room for interpretation. They contain various limitations that could have been used to justify banning Signal's account, were Facebook so inclined. For example, the "Personal Content" prohibition says, "Ads must not contain content that asserts or implies personal attributes."

Augustine Fou, a cybersecurity and ad fraud researcher who advises companies about online marketing, expressed skepticism about Signal's insistence that people would recoil if they understood ad tech.

"When I spoke to Millennials to ask about whether they're concerned about tracking, they said, 'We have nothing to hide so we don't care,'" he told The Register in a phone interview. "I'd have expected young people to be more sensitive."

Fou said that while regulators, privacy advocates, and tech-savvy types were alarmed by Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, the general public is not leading the charge for privacy.

Oddly specific

In a phone interview with The Register, Claire Atkin, co-founder of marketing consultancy Check My Ads, said she found it interesting that Facebook chose to respond to Signal's post and explain why the account had been blocked.

"It's unusual they're so clear about why an account was blocked," she said. "From an advertisers point of view, Facebook has blocked accounts that advertise so-called 'controversial' topics in a way that is non-transparent and confusing for people who run ads on Facebook."

To illustrate how the term "controversial" is applied, she said "if you're advertising about climate change, you can get blocked for political advertising on Facebook."

Facebook, she said, has a reputation for opaqueness with advertisers. "It's not unusual that an advertiser would get blocked for an unspecified reason," she said.

Atkin said, however, that Signal's premise resonates with some people and said she isn't surprised the company's message has found an audience. "Digital advertising is tracking us in ways that are inappropriately intrusive," she said. Atkin said marketers have been told that digital ad tech will let them build their brands at scale, target infinitesimally small subgroups, retarget people, and understand target markets in ways never possible before.

"The truth is that's just not true," she said. "What we do have is a massive data grab, but the promise offered hasn't been fulfilled for advertisers. What this means is we, as users of the internet, are giving up enormous amounts of personal data for nothing." ®

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