Facebook ‘Repeatedly and Intentionally’ Violated Washington’s Political Ad Law, Judge Rules

The Seattle Times reports:
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, repeatedly and intentionally violated Washington campaign-ad transparency law and must pay penalties yet to be determined, a judge ruled Friday.

The court also denied Meta’s attempt to invalidate Washington’s decades-old transparency law, according to Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office has repeatedly sued Meta over its failure to abide by the law…. In a statement, Ferguson said his office defeated Facebook’s “cynical attempt” to gut Washington’s campaign-finance transparency law. “On behalf of the people of Washington, I challenge Facebook to accept this decision and do something very simple — follow the law,” he said.
Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Washington’s transparency law, originally passed by voters through an initiative in 1972, requires ad sellers such as Meta to disclose the names and addresses of political ad buyers, the targets of such ads and the total number of views of each ad.

Meta says that rather than comply with the law, Facebook has stopped serving campaign ads altogether in Washington, GeekWire reports, “after determining that the company wouldn’t be able to reasonably comply with the law.”

But “The current suit against Meta, filed in April 2020, asserts that the company continued to accept political ads in the state after promising to stop.”
The judge will now consider fines and a potential injunction against the social media giant, reported Eli Sanders, a Seattle journalist who covered the dispute for years for The Stranger newspaper and more recently in his Wild West newsletter….

In court filings, Meta called Washington state “an outlier,” arguing that the disclosure law violates the First Amendment by unfairly targeting political speech, and imposing onerous timelines for disclosing what Meta considers unreasonable degrees of detail to people who request information about political ads.

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Companies are Subtly Tricking Users Online with ‘Dark Patterns’

CNN reports:

An “unsubscribe” option that’s a little too hard to find. A tiny box you click, thinking it simply takes you to the next page, but it also grants access to your data. And any number of unexpected charges that appear during checkout that weren’t made clearer earlier in the process. Countless popular websites and apps, from retailers and travel services to social media companies, make use of so-called “dark patterns,” or gently coercive design tactics that critics say are used to manipulate peoples’ digital behaviors.

The term “dark patterns” was coined by Harry Brignull, a U.K.-based user experience specialist and researcher of human-computer interactions. Brignull began noticing that when he reported to one of his clients that most test subjects felt deceived by an aspect of their website or app design, the client seemed to welcome the feedback. “That was always intriguing for me as a researcher, because normally the name of the game is to find the flaws and fix them,” Brignull told CNN Business. “Now we’re finding ‘flaws’ that the client seems to like, and want to keep.”

To put it in the parlance of Silicon Valley, he realized it was a feature, not a bug….

Brignull, for his part, said he has spent time testifying as an expert witness in some class action lawsuits related to dark patterns in the UK. “The scams don’t work when the victim knows what the scammer is trying to do,” Brignull said. “If they know what the scam is, then they’re not going to get taken in — and that’s why I’ve enjoyed so much exposing these things, and showing it to other consumers.”
The article notes that America’s Federal Trade Commission “is ramping up its enforcement in response to ‘a rising number of complaints about the financial harms caused by deceptive sign-up tactics, including unauthorized charges or ongoing billing that is impossible cancel.'”

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German Regulators Open Investigation Into Apple’s App Tracking Transparency

From the MacRumors blog earlier this week:
Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, the Bundeskartellamt, has initiated proceedings against Apple to investigate whether its tracking rules and anti-tracking technology are anti-competitive and self-serving, according to a press release. The proceeding announced will review under competition law Apple’s tracking rules and specifically its App Tracking Transparency Framework (ATT) in order to ascertain whether they are self-preferencing Apple or being an impediment to third-party apps…

Introduced in April 2021 with the release of iOS 14.5 and iPadOS 14.5, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency Framework requires that all apps on âOEiPhoneâOE and âOEiPadâOE ask for the user’s consent before tracking their activity across other apps. Apps that wish to track a user based on their device’s unique advertising identifier can only do so if the user allows it when prompted.

Apple said the feature was designed to protect users and not to advantage the company… Earlier this year it commissioned a study into the impact of ATT that was conducted by Columbia Business School’s Marketing Division. The study concluded that Apple was unlikely to have seen a significant financial benefit since the privacy feature launched, and that claims to the contrary were speculative and lacked supporting evidence.
The technology/Apple blog Daring Fireball offers its own hot take:

In Germany, big publishing companies like Axel Springer are pushing back against Google’s stated plans to remove third-party cookie support from Chrome. The notion that if a company has built a business model on top of privacy-invasive surveillance advertising, they have a right to continue doing so, seems to have taken particular root in Germany. I’ll go back to my analogy: it’s like pawn shops suing to keep the police from cracking down on a wave of burglaries….

The Bundeskartellamt perspective here completely disregards the idea that surveillance advertising is inherently unethical and Apple has studiously avoided it for that reason, despite the fact that it has proven to be wildly profitable for large platforms. Apple could have made an enormous amount of money selling privacy-invasive ads on iOS, but opted not to.

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Chrome’s ‘Topics’ Advertising System Is Here, Whether You Want It Or Not

slack_justyb writes: After the failure of the Chrome user-tracking system that was called FLoC, Google’s latest try at topic tracking to replace the 3rd party cookie (that Chrome is the only browser to still support) is FLEDGE and the most recent drop of Canary has this on full display for users and privacy advocates to dive deeper into. This recent release shows Google’s hand that it views user tracking as a mandatory part of internet usage, especially given this system’s eye-rolling name of “Privacy Sandbox” and the tightness in the coupling of this new API to the browser directly.

The new API will allow the browser itself to build what it believes to be things that you are interested in, based on broad topics that Google creates. New topics and methods for how you are placed into those topics will be added to the browser’s database and indexing software via updates from Google. The main point to take away here though is that the topic database is built using your CPU’s time. At this time, opting out of the browser building this interest database is possible thus saving you a few cycles from being used for that purpose. In the future there may not be a way to stop the browser from using cycles to build the database; the only means may be to just constantly remove all interest from your personal database. At this time there doesn’t seem to be any way to completely turn off the underlying API. A website that expects this API will always succeed in “some sort of response” so long as you are using Chrome. The response may be that you are interested in nothing, but a response none-the-less. Of course, sending a response of “interested in nothing” would more than likely require someone constantly, and timely, clearing out the interest database, especially if at some later time the option to turn off the building of the database is removed.

With 82% of Google’s empire based on ad revenue, this latest development in Chrome shows that Google is not keen on any moves to threaten their main money maker. Google continues to argue that it is mandatory that it builds a user tracking and advertising system into Chrome, and the company says it won’t block third-party cookies until it accomplishes that — no matter what the final solution may ultimately be. The upshot, if it can be called that, of the FLEDGE API over FLoC, is that abuse of FLEDGE looks to yield less valuable results. And attempting to use the API alone to pick out an individual user via fingerprinting or other methods employed elsewhere seems to be rather difficult to do. But only time will tell if that remains true or just Google idealizing this new API. As for the current timeline, here’s what the company had to say in the latest Chromium Blog post: “Starting today, developers can begin testing globally the Topics, FLEDGE, and Attribution Reporting APIs in the Canary version of Chrome. We’ll progress to a limited number of Chrome Beta users as soon as possible. Once things are working smoothly in Beta, we’ll make API testing available in the stable version of Chrome to expand testing to more Chrome users.”

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Shoppers React as Grocers Replace Freezer Doors with Screens Playing Ads

Walgreens and other retailers replaced some fridge and freezer doors with iPad-like screens, reports CNN. “And some shoppers absolutely hate it.”
The screens, which were developed by the startup Cooler Screens, use a system of motion sensors and cameras to display what’s inside the doors — as well as product information, prices, deals and, most appealing to brands, paid advertisements. The tech provides stores with an additional revenue stream and a way to modernize the shopping experience. But for customers who just want to peek into the freezer and grab their ice cream, Walgreens risks angering them by solving a problem that shoppers didn’t know existed. The company wants to engage more people with advertising, but the reaction, so far, is annoyance and confusion.

“Why would Walgreens do this?” one befuddled shopper who encountered the screens posted on TikTok. “Who on God’s green earth thought this was a good idea?”

“The digital cooler screens at Walgreens made me watch an ad before it allowed me to know which door held the frozen pizzas,” said someone on Twitter….

Walgreens began testing the screens in 2018 and has since expanded the pilot to a couple thousand locations nationwide. Several other major retailers are launching their own tests with Cooler Screens, including Kroger, CVS, GetGo convenience stores and Chevron gas stations. “I hope that we will one day be able to expand across all parts of the store,” said Cooler Screens co-founder and CEO Arsen Avakian in an interview with CNN Business. Currently the startup has about 10,000 screens in stores, which are viewed by approximately 90 million consumers monthly, according to the company….

Politifact last month debunked a viral Facebook video that claimed “Walgreens refrigerators are scanning shoppers’ hands and foreheads for ‘the mark of the beast.'”

Avakian insists the tech is “identity-blind” and protects consumers’ privacy. The freezers have front-facing sensors used to anonymously track shoppers interacting with the platform, while internally facing cameras track product inventory…

The items on display don’t always match up with what’s inside because products are out of stock…..

“This is the future of retail and shopping,” Avakian said.

CNN notes that major corporations are backing the company Cooler Screens, which “has raised more than $100 million from backers including Microsoft and Verizon.” But long-time Slashdot reader davidwr points out it’s been done before. “Some gas stations have had video ads at the pump for years now. I boycott those stations on principle.”

And Slashdot reader quonset wonders if we’re one step closer to Futurama’s vision of a world where advertisers enter our dreams.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

Google to Overhaul Ad-Tracking on Android Phones Used by Billions

The Washington Post reports:

Google announced it will begin the process of getting rid of long-standing ad trackers on its Android operating system, upending how advertising and data-collection work on phones and tablets used by more than 2.5 billion people around the world.

Right now, Google assigns special IDs to each Android device, allowing advertisers to build profiles of what people do on their phones and serve them highly targeted ads. Google will begin testing alternatives to those IDs this year and eventually remove them completely, the company said in a Wednesday blog post. Google said the changes will improve privacy for Android users, limiting the massive amounts of data that app developers collect from people using the platform.

But the move also could give Google even more power over digital advertising, and is likely to deepen concerns regulators have already expressed about the company’s competitive practices… It made $61 billion in advertising revenue in the fourth quarter of 2021 alone….

The announcement comes over a year after Apple began blocking trackers on its own operating system, which runs on its iPhones, giving customers more tools to limit the data they share with app developers…. Google contrasted its plan with Apple’s, saying it would make the changes over the next two years, working closely with app developers and the advertising industry to craft new ways of targeting ads and measuring their effectiveness before making any drastic changes.
“We realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers,” said Anthony Chavez, vice president of product management for Android security and privacy, in the blog post. “We believe that without first providing a privacy-preserving alternative path such approaches can be ineffective and lead to worse outcomes for user privacy and developer businesses.”
The Post also includes this quote from the chief security office of Mozilla (which began restricting ad tracking in Firefox several years ago). “Google’s two year plan is too long. People deserve better privacy now.”

Read more of this story at Slashdot.