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How to control the ads we see on the internet

The ads we see on the pages we visit on the Internet have no control over them. They appear and then disappear without a trace. Many of these adverts, such as those that come out on Youtube, often systematically violate the conditions of use that Youtube itself (see Ads on YouTube that lead to fake pages) imposes on advertisers.

Those ads are aimed at a specific audience. They are configured in such a way that they try to offer us products or pages as relevant as possible to us. However, we, as people who see them, cannot do much about the appearance of these ads. One of the things we can do is block a particular ad.

Tool to control the ads we see

Ad Observer is a tool that is added to your web browser using an add-on. It is available for Google Chrome  and  Mozilla Firefoxbrowsers. What this tool does is copy the adverts we see on Facebook and YouTube, so that anyone can see them in a public database. If you wish, you can enter basic demographic information about us into the tool to help you better understand why advertisers targeted you.

Despite being a tool that actively observes the ads directed at us, they will never ask us for information that can identify us. They do not collect any personal information. The creators of this page take privacy very seriously. You can view the extension code on Github. You can also check this add-on in  Mozilla.

What this tool collects

The extension identifies an ad as a Facebook post that contains the string “Sponsored” (in English or the corresponding text in other languages) in the upper-left corner by marking the post as an ad.

From each post identified as an advertisement, the extension collects the following fields of information:

  • Advertiser Information
    • The name of the advertiser who created the ad.
    • Facebook page ID of the advertiser who created the ad
  • Advertising content from the advertiser to users.
    • Advertisement ID.
    • The title of the listing.
    • Textual content of the announcement.
    • List of URLs of ad images.
    • Paid disclosure chain for an ad, if applicable.
    • The text of the call-to-action button in the ad, if any.
    • HTML of the ad.
  • Select ad targeting data fields in the “Why do I see this?” section.
  • In addition, users can optionally choose to provide answers to four demographic survey questions such as providing their gender, age group, country or language.

What this tool not collect

Anything that personally identifies you, so we would talk about:

  • Your Facebook ID number.
  • Your name, birthday, friends list, etc.
  • How you interact with adverts.

Why it’s important to control the ads we see on internet

Typically, online ads are only seen by the audience the advertiser wants to target and then disappear. This makes it difficult for the public to control them and hold advertisers accountable. While platforms have developed some transparency libraries for political ads, these libraries are missing many ads with political content and often don’t include vital information such as ad targeting.

It’s very important, at least for me, to be able to verify who’s trying to influence the public and how they’re doing it. Related to this it is interesting to check out the Ad Observatory, a page about political campaigns and interest groups that seek to influenceyour vote.

Who pays for the online advertising that targets you? Who shows you ads because they’re married, you’re a liberal, or you work in the oil industry or some other category? With Ad Observer and by using its browser add-on, we send the ads we see on Facebook and YouTube, without compromising our privacy.

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