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X, Google, Meta and more fall short at ad transparency, says report

X, Google, Meta and more fall short at ad transparency, says report

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A new report has found that tech giants such as Apple, Google, Meta, X and more are failing to provide critical ad transparency tools to its users, leaving them more susceptible to disinformation. 

In the report, Mozilla and CheckFirst, a Finland-based research and software solutions company, conducted an evaluation of ad transparency tools between December 2023 and January 2024. It used different parameters that included data accessibility and usability, functionality, accuracy and analysed a number of ad transparency tools created by tech platforms such as Google, Meta, Apple, LinkedIn, X, Snapchat, Bing, TikTok and more. 

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It also laid out five guidelines that ad archive APIs needed to meet in order to support election influence monitoring and independent research.

The recommendations are:

1. Comprehensive content:
The API should provide access to both paid political ads and issue-based ads without restrictions based on pre-selected topics or keywords.
2. Detailed ad information:
This includes the content of the advertisement, targeting criteria, impressions, engagements, payment details, and microtargeting specifics.
3. Functionality:
The API should support advanced research and analysis, allowing for trend analysis, content downloads, and search functionalities.
4. Data accessibility:
Advertisements should be available within 24 hours of publication, with historical data access going back at least 10 years. The API should be maintained and promptly fixed if issues arise.


X ranked the worst on data accessibility and search capabilities. X offers public access to its ad repository, but ads are only accessible through the export of a CSV file. X also includes information about the funding entities of ads and the duration of ad display.

However, there are gaps in targeting parameters and recipient data, limiting transparency into audience reach. The “creative information” (the content of the ad) is not disclosed - only a URL to the ad is available, the report said. 

With only a (slow to load) CSV file instead of a web interface, this was a major disappointment.

Another site that ranked low was 

"We found it very difficult to link ads on the platform to ads in the web repository, and we found insufficient documentation about the API," said the study. 

It added that while offers public access to its ad repository, the content related to the advertisements within it is "limited".

The platform discloses "limited information" about the entities funding ads. It displays ad duration and aggregate reach numbers broken down by EU Member State, but it does not provide specific details about targeting criteria, using simply a template sentence description for each ad, it added. 

"Despite comprehensive content coverage, lacks detailed ad information, such as the particular groups of recipients targeted."

The report did rank other tech giants such as Apple, Google, TikTok and LinkedIn moderately better but still found lapses in certain aspects of its ad transparency. 

Google and YouTube

For example, the study found that Google's ad repository is accessible to the public, which is crucial. Although targeting parameters and recipient data are somewhat limited and sometimes totally absent, Google's inclusion of country-specific targeting and aggregate recipient data offers some insight into ad reach and targeted demographics, it said. 

In the case of YouTube, it noted that it was one of the few repositories that includes branded or user-declared commercial communications content such as influencer content. 


LinkedIn's targeting parameters, such as country, language, location, and company, provide a detailed view of audience targeting. The inclusion of recipient data offers clear insights into the reach and impact of its ads, it said. 

"Our accuracy test found 100% of ads studied in the repository: we found accurate listings and detailed information on the ads during our testing period. The repository's reliability is strong, indicating consistent and dependable performance, it said, adding:

However, we find the repository lacks both filtering and sorting capabilities.


When it comes to Meta, the study said that while it sees progress since 2019, it was "disappointed" by accuracy errors and missing data fields in the web repository.

Meta's ad repository is publicly accessible and focuses on the ads themselves as they’re shown to users. Meta discloses advertisement entities, including both the beneficiary and the payer, as well as the ad duration, it said. 

It is also possible to reach the repository directly from an ad the user has been exposed to on the platform in five clicks.

"The accuracy test showed mixed results: during our test period, we found 83% of our studied Instagram ads in the repository, and only 65% for Facebook. On Facebook we found beneficiary information lacking on 13% of ads."


It also found that TikTok's ad repository and API look "robust" but said that it encountered "gaps and accuracy errors".

TikTok discloses advertiser information, including the party paying for ads and their registered locations. It also discloses ad durations. It has detailed targeting parameters, such as gender, age, audience, interest and creator interactions, it said. 

However, TikTok's repository is structured using the REST architecture, offering a flexible querying system. Users can search the dataset by various parameters such as keyword, country, date range, or a combination thereof, it explained.

"We found the API reliable but occasionally encountered 'internal error' messages. The dataset was consistent, but we found the 'ad.image_urls' field often turned out to be empty. This absence deprives researchers of the pre-loading images that are displayed before a video starts to play, which could reduce usefulness," it said.

Key takeaways

The study ultimately found that approaches to ad transparency vary widely among the platforms studied. However, its main takeaway is that even the best approaches "don’t meet our baseline".

It noted that while there is a spectrum of accessibility for the web repositories and the APIs, considering factors such as the need for a login and the need to apply formally.

"On one end, platforms like Apple and Booking have free access to the web repository and API even without an account. On the opposite end, Snap and AliExpress had no APIs at all, as of March 18, 2024.

It added that a few repositories are accessible through several clicks from an ad in the interface, but many could only be found by digging into the platforms’ terms and conditions.

Explaining further, the study explained that it observed that there are many approaches to disclosing the entity behind the ad and it’s difficult to
assess what is most useful or meaningfully transparent.

Meta discloses the beneficiary and the payer, while most platforms disclose the “Advertiser” or “Sponsor” without further context. TikTok, Bing, and Google, for instance, include the registered location of the entity paying for the ad, it said. 

It added:

Our accuracy testing found many cases where ads in the user interface were not located in the ad repository. This can limit the usefulness and trustworthiness of the repositories as a transparency tool.

The study also pointed out that while some platforms such as Google and LinkedIn show strong reliability, ensuring consistent and up-to-date ad information, others, such as X in particular, were not always consistent, reducing their usefulness "dramatically". It added:

None of these ad repositories are fully fit for the purpose of researchers, in our view.

Join us this coming 24 - 25 April for #Content360, a two-day extravaganza centered around four core thematic pillars: Explore with AI; Insight-powered strategies; Content as an experience; and Embrace the future. Immerse yourself in learning to curate content with creativity, critical thinking, and confidence with us at Content360!

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