The Opt Out: The case against editing your ad settings
The illusion of control is still an illusion.
IT’S BECOME COMMON for social media platforms and other online services to offer you a way to find, edit, and delete the data they have on you. The steps aren’t always obvious, but if you dig deep enough into a site’s settings, you’ll likely find a page full of information the company has gathered in an attempt to serve you more relevant ads.
What you see will vary, but you should find data points such as your gender, marital status, education, income bracket, and various interests. Platforms make this data available for the sake of transparency, but also to tempt you into refining it—if only to stop seeing ads about football games when you’re more of a basketball person.
But be careful: A more complete profile may result in ads you find more relevant, and that doesn’t benefit you. It benefits them—the platforms that earn billions of dollars from advertisers to show you banners and autoplay videos they hope will get you to spend your money on things you may not need.
Transparency is always good news
For more than a decade, the biggest players in the digital advertising industry have been Google and Meta. In 2021, these powerhouses respectively held close to a third and a quarter of the market share. Their dominance may be why they have both created dedicated sites that people can use to see information each company has gathered for its advertising purposes.
In the case of the Big G, the site is My Ad Center. For a long time, this was an options menu you could find only through your main account page, but the company recently gave it more prominence with a user-friendly makeover and its own URL. While signed into your Google account, you can visit the site and tweak ad-related settings for all of the company’s products, including YouTube.
[Related: When it comes to privacy, smart devices are not the smarter choice]
Meta has something similar. In the past, users had to go through a labyrinthic process to find their Facebook ad settings, but getting to the right menu is a lot easier now. (On the web, go to Settings and Privacy, Privacy Center, find Ads, and click on Get Started.) You can even bypass those steps by going directly to the platform’s ad settings website while signed into your Facebook account. Changing your preferences here might also affect the ads you see on Instagram because both sites are owned by Meta.
These are not the only ones: Microsoft, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and some others also give users the ability to see information these platforms have gathered. If you’re not sure where to find it, your best bet is to go to your account settings and look for any menus related to privacy or ads.
Putting all this information at our disposal mainly helps with one thing: transparency. Tech privacy is a conundrum, and a hairy one at that. Not only is there a huge power disparity between the actors involved—you vs. lawyered-up, tech-savvy, billion-dollar companies—but also because it poses different challenges in different contexts. User privacy is intimately related to mass surveillance, including face recognition software, spying apps, and blabber-mouth speakers. There are also future problems we can’t even imagine at the moment. For people who talk and think about this for a living, it’s hard to keep up; for users who are not specifically attuned to the matter, it’s practically impossible. So having tech companies create a space to show us a potentially sanitized version of how the sausage is made is a big step in the right direction.
Editing your ad preferences is a trap
But don’t get the wrong idea—this is not just a user perk. If you’ve ever had to undergo a serious medical procedure, your doctor might have sat you down and walked you through the process step by step. They do this so you’ll go into the operation feeling like you understand what’s going to happen.
The same principle applies to ad settings and user privacy in general. Some tech companies show you how they use your data to get you to trust them. This, in turn, may appease privacy concerns from certain reluctant users and some people advocating for regulation that would hinder the companies’ primary source of wealth. A little less mystery around data-harvesting can reduce questions about the services, making it easier for these companies to operate.
You may feel relieved after Google tells you it’s not selling your personal information and Meta assures you it doesn’t share the content you post with data brokers. Even more than that—you may feel like you have control over what happens to your data. Up to a certain point, that’s true: These companies also give you the choice to personalize your experience and even turn off targeted ads altogether. But that’s not a lot of control. Personalized ads are on by default on many platforms, so unless you turned them off the second you created your account, the app has already used your data to try to sell you stuff.
The chance to edit your ad profile can also be misleading. You can cull topics, accounts, and even specific brands you’re not interested in, but in doing so you’re helping make your data more accurate. There’s not really a way to win here, but refining your data may actually be worse than doing nothing.
Still, there’s no harm in trying
Yet, having the ability to edit, omit, and add data can also be an opportunity. After all, if you can input data, you can input wrong data. This could mess with the algorithm and obscure real information, leading to ineffective ads and more privacy as a result.
While this is a possibility, the somewhat disappointing truth is that we don’t know for sure whether this type of data obfuscation actually works. We can’t see what happens behind the scenes of social platform companies and their ad tech relationships, and without that access it’s hard to determine if changing our ad preferences to something that misrepresents our true selves does anything at all.
[Related: How to uncover what Facebook knows about you]
We must also consider that online platforms use a vast variety of aggregated data to try to understand who you are and what you’re interested in, beyond what you input into its forms. This includes geotags you might have included on some of your posts, the language you speak, and the accounts you follow. That is a lot of information, so stating that you are not actually interested in sports might not counterbalance the fact that you follow a lot of sports-related accounts and constantly post about your favorite team. The good news is that trying won’t cost you a thing—using ad settings to protect your privacy might be a shot in the dark, but it’s one worth taking.
Other than that, there’s not a lot you should do on the ad settings page of any given app. Anything you do there is really just free labor, whether it’s confirming your age group or trimming a long list of topics and interests. Some may think it’s fair—after all, these companies provide services, like Google Maps and WhatsApp, free of charge. But you’re definitely paying for them, just not in cash. You don’t want to do these companies’ work for them too.
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