After Cambridge Analytica, some targeted ads on Facebook will become less targeted

Rolling it back.
Rolling it back.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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In an effort to improve public perception about its management of user data, Facebook is going after one of the features that has made it so successful—targeted ads.

On March 28, Facebook announced it will wind down a program that lets its advertisers target users with supplementary data coming from third-party information brokers. The move could potentially dent Facebook’s business model—but comes as public scrutiny toward the company’s handling of personal information increases in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Specifically, Facebook will end Partner Categories, a service it launched in 2013. Under the program, an advertiser looking to reach an audience on Facebook could draw from data provided from third-party data companies to enhance its targeting capabilities. The extra info could supplement data provided by Facebook, as well the advertiser’s own data.

When Facebook first announced the program, its partners included Datalogix, Epsilon, and Acxiom—companies that collect offline purchasing data (taken from, for example, a supermarket’s loyalty card program) and sell access to this data to other companies.

Quartz reached out to Epsilon and other companies participating in the program, but has not heard back yet.

Facebook explained the program’s closure in a brief blog post:

We want to let advertisers know that we will be shutting down Partner Categories. This product enables third party data providers to offer their targeting directly on Facebook. While this is common industry practice, we believe this step, winding down over the next six months, will help improve people’s privacy on Facebook.

Partner Categories has little to do with how Cambridge Analytica harvested data from Facebook users. In that case, a researcher collaborating with Cambridge Analytica distributed an innocuous-looking personality quiz on the platform, which about 270,000 Facebook users filled out. By doing so, these users also handed over data from their friends’ profile pages to the researcher—under terms that Facebook permitted at the time.

Still, by shutting down the program, Facebook appears to be signaling that it will attempt to put users at ease when it comes to how data is managed across its platform. Hours before it confirmed the closing of Partner Categories, the company announced it would redesign its privacy settings to make it easier for users to access—or erase—data the company has on them.