Since the 2016 USA presidential election, the public has become aware of techniques that allow advertisers to aim their messages at narrow groups of people, sliced not just by place of residence, age and sex, but also by consumer and political preferences, browsing histories, voting records and other kinds of personal data.
Trump campaign officials pressured Facebook to maintain its permissive political advertising rules, while Alphabet Inc.'s Google announced an overhaul of how campaigns may target their messages across the world's largest search engine.
Going forward, Google will now only allow election ad targeting based on "age, gender, and general location (postal code level)".
Plus, Google starting on December 3, 2019 will expand the coverage of its election advertising transparency to include USA state-level candidates and officeholders, ballot measures, and ads that mention federal or state political parties, so that all of those ads will now be searchable and viewable as well.
The internet company said its rules already ban any advertiser, including those with political messages, from lying in ads. Slicing and dicing the audience is at the heart of Facebook's offering to advertisers, so it's understandably hesitant to disable the feature, thought it, too, has been mulling some targeting curbs.
Google - which has taken in tens of millions of dollars in political advertising in the United States since a year ago - has been notably quiet in the debate surrounding how online platforms handle political ads.
The update comes as tech giants face intense scrutiny for the political ads running on their platforms and how they could affect elections and civic discourse.
Google noted that "no one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim, counterclaim, and insinuation", so it plans to take "very limited" action, acting only in cases of "clear violations".
Google announced on Wednesday that it would ban microtargeting in political ads, starting in the United Kingdom "within the week". The firm insists its services, which manifest as search ads, YouTube ads and display ads, haven't granularly targeted users, although feels it can do more to raise the transparency of election ads.
You can also expect greater transparency for American ads. "All eyes are now on Facebook, which, despite making some changes, is still accepting money for political ads which can contain disinformation", she said. "It is easy to single out susceptible groups and direct political misinformation to them with little accountability, because the public at large never sees the ad", she argued.