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Big tech’s making it impossible to know what targeted ads are doing – and that’s a problem

A lack of transparency about targeted advertising by big tech companies is making it impossible to scrutinise their behaviour, according to a new government commissioned report.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation published the paper earlier this week, calling for greater transparency and more comprehensive controls for consumers.

Other recommendations include forming a regulatory body to oversee current practices and commissioning independent research into ad-targeting.

This won’t be easy, as – according to the report – the information being held by large platforms is very difficult to obtain. And it’s kind of hard to conduct meaningful research when certain companies are hoarding all the data.

Related: Zuckerberg faces rebellion over Facebook’s dodgy political ads policy

The report also takes a deep dive into public opinion on ad-targeting. Surprisingly, most people are considerably “meh” when it comes to the practice, believing that the current system offers considerable benefits.

Crucially, though, the public did say that they wanted “online targeting systems to operate to higher standards of accountability and transparency.” They also want greater control over how they are individually targeted.

Basically, the people want companies to stop creeping on their private conversations, but still want the useful personalised internet experiences. Fair enough.

The main takeaway from the report is the ethics body calling for new powers that would allow government to audit how companies are using data.

This would technically mean that even more people would have access to your info, but it’s hard to imagine big companies like Facebook happily agreeing to this. Especially – as outlined in the report – “online targeting has helped to put a handful of global online platform businesses in positions of enormous power.”

Related: Twitter bans political ads in direct challenge to Facebook

Targeted-ads were put under the spotlight last year during the election campaign, when all of the big political parties decided to invest in them. At the time, Twitter decided to ban the ads, saying that “political reach should be earned, not bought.”

But Facebook still carries political ads – and has come under fire recently for allowing the Trump campaign to publish unsubstantiated claims via the platform.

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