Awkward Conversation With Facebook

What Happened When I Caught Them Defaulting Us Back Into Behavorial Ad Tracking and Targeting

David Carroll
Jun 2, 2016 · 5 min read

I discovered that Facebook had opted me back into behavioral (interest-based) advertising despite the fact that I had already taken the time and care to opt-out of as many ad settings as offered by the company. I checked because I research this industry as part of my academic practice and found write-ups on their new off-site ad network on the Verge and Mediapost.

I tweeted an annotated screenshot based on my understanding of this opt-out and it went viral after more than 100,000 impressions and thousands of engagements with other users who implicitly and explicitly shared my understanding that they’ve too have been opted back in to ad tracking and targeting.

Eventually, Facebook replied and notified me that they did not change my setting but instead added a new one.

I requested a screenshot of the previous settings and they complied.

Forking Us Over

Before launching their off-site ad network, I had expressed a clear choice to Facebook on its ad “controls” by choosing the setting of “No” related to “Ads based on my use of websites and apps” because I do not wish to “see online interest based ads from Facebook.” Sorry, Mr. Zuckerberg, but I just don’t want the tailored ads and I know you have to make a noble attempt to offer us more ethical notices and choices because of your FTC Consent Decree.

However, when Facebook added its new “control,” they require us to find a means to gain the knowledge that it exists and then turn it off again in its varied context that might seem obvious and significant to an industry insider but is otherwise a subtle nuance for everyone else.

Rather than carry over my existing choice, which would logically preserve any goodwill with the company, they were greedy and defaulted us all back in to tracking and targeting in an even more expansive manner than we could previously imagine.

Previously, I chose “No” to “Ads based on my use of websites and apps.”

Since the default opt-in, I had to gain the knowledge that I needed to choose “No” to “Ads on apps and websites off of the Facebook companies.”

Do you think it’s fair and ethical and not deceptive that Facebook has made this new distinction without notifying you about this change on the main Facebook user interface? If you had already opted out of interest-based ads, would you have preferred that Facebook opt you out of its new off-company network?

Lost Opportunity

Facebook has a precious opportunity to address some of the rot at the core of the digital media industry and be an admired leader on Privacy-by-Design, the way that Apple is setting the bar on this profound issue. However, Facebook blew this chance to be a leader here, and instead they failed to make a consumer choice simple and persistant. #FacebookFail

BTW: “There are Broken Links in Your Privacy Policy”

I also notified Facebook of broken links I had discovered in their Data Policy when viewed on their native iOS apps that went sitting unfixed for months. By capturing their attention, I reminded them of these broken links and they acknowledged the feedback would be sent to the team. These links are not yet fixed at the time of this posting.

Threading The Greedy Needle

I am guessing that they have done this to “thread the needle” on their FTC Consent Decree which prohibits them from changing existing settings without notifications related to privacy. Instead of revising the language of an existing setting and drawing attention to it, they decided to create a new one and fork the notions of behavioral targeting on and off Facebook company sites (we’re expected to learn what they are). They default us into tracking and tailoring for their new off-site ad network, regardless of whether we have shown interest in opting out of interest-based advertising in one or more other contexts already.


This decision might be arguably reasonable but the FTC Consent Decree also demands Privacy-by-Design and the evidence from my responses on Twitter suggests to us that they have not lived up to the spirit of the decree because they have confused users who are consistently demonstrating their misunderstanding of the policies and settings yielding documentable increased distrust.

There are too many quote tweets on my timeline to embed here but I’ll select a few from the most influential Twitter users. Facebook may be technicially compliant with the Consent Decree, I’m just guessing, I’m not a lawyer. But it is not being perceived as ethical by a vocal subset of users.

Where’s Privacy Dino?

Facebook has already demonstrated a willingness to bring your privacy settings to the forefront of your attention but it is telling that they refrain from doing so for issues related to advertising. Why didn’t they alert users to their new off-network targeting “control” with the Privacy Dino, instead relegating the notice to their blog?

Awkward Conversations with Parents About Facebook

It’s not the first time that this has happened.

I have also had a similar experience with a screenshot of a Facebook privacy setting going viral on Twitter related to their requirement that parents and guardians hire a lawyer to draft a statement to get notarized in order to opt their children out of “Social Actions” ads (unpaid product endorsements) if they can’t otherwise hack into their teen’s account. I wrote about the parental privacy issue on Medium after my tweet went viral on Twitter.

Keep reading about Facebook’s insistence on keeping us opted in, especially our kids.

Thanks to everyone who retweeted and liked my original tweet. Thanks to Facebook for listening and responding.


The reaction to this piece from Facebook PR and in the press, as well as my rebuttal follows.

David Carroll

Written by

Associate Professor of Media Design at Parsons School of Design @THENEWSCHOOL

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