Mozilla becomes first brand to pull ads from Facebook following Cambridge Analytica scandal

The company behind the Firefox web browser says it will not return to advertising on Facebook until there are strong protections around user data.

Mozilla, the company best known for its Firefox web browse, is “pausing” advertising on Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In a blog post, Denelle Dixon, Mozilla’s chief business and legal officer, says the recent allegations have caused the company to “take a closer look” at Facebook’s default privacy settings, given its “support of the platform through ad dollars”. What it found, she adds, is those settings “leave access open to a lot of data”, particularly for third-party apps.

Facebook has come under pressure after a series of damaging investigations headed by the Guardian into the access given to third-party apps and its response to it. It is alleged that Cambridge Analytica had access to the data of 50 million Facebook users.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who had kept quiet on the rising scandal for almost five days, last night (21 March) began a media offensive designed to rebuild trust in the social network and lay out how it is dealing with the allegations.

Action includes investigating all the apps that had access to user information before it changed its rules in 2014 and making it easier for users to change their privacy settings by moving the tools to the top of the news feed. Facebook will also be restricting the data third-party developers can access to name, email address and profile picture; any app that requires more data will have to get approval and sign a contract, and access will be removed if a user hasn’t been on their account for three months.

While these steps go some way to allaying concerns, Mozilla wants more. Dixon says it wants “stronger action” on how it shares customer data, specifically around default privacy settings for third-party apps, before it will consider returning.

Brands will need to play a major role in rebuilding a digital ecosystem where people decide who they share their data with, when and how.

Will Gilroy, WFA

“We are encouraged that Mark Zuckerberg has promised to improve the privacy settings and make them more protective. When Facebook takes stronger action in how it shares customer data, specifically strengthening its default privacy settings for third party apps, we’ll consider returning,” she says.

“We look forward to Facebook instituting some of the things that Zuckerberg promised today.”

Other advertisers are taking more of a wait-and-see approach. At Advertising Week Europe, taking place in London this week, there has been much talk of marketers wanting to ensure as much as possible is now being done to protect users, but no other brand has yet come forward to say it has cut spend. But the revelations have elicited conversations with media agencies and a desire to widen targeting.

Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, speaking at a Press Gallery lunch earlier today (22 March) also said the government “hasn’t gone there yet” on stopping advertising on Facebook. According to the Guardian, he argued that Facebook is an effective form of communication despite the data breach.

And ISBA, the organisation that represents British advertisers, told The Times it will be meeting with Facebook this week to make clear that its members are concerned about the Cambridge Analytica revelations and the social network’s approach to data privacy. But it is not recommending that advertisers pull spend.

The impact on Facebook’s ad business

It would take a lot of brands pulling advertising to have a significant impact on Facebook’s business. eMarketer estimates its ad revenues will hit $48.9bn (£35.5bn) globally this year. And even when hundreds of advertisers boycotted YouTube in the wake of the brand safety scandal last year, most were back within a few weeks and it had no material effect on Google’s business.

READ MORE: Google is ‘confident’ it can win back advertiser trust after brand safety scandal

Matti Littunen of Enders Analysis says: “There are PR benefits right now in announcing a boycott, but ultimately what will matter for most advertisers is return on media investment.”

However, with the data-sharing scandal raising the ire of regulators both in the UK and US, it does bring tech platforms such as Facebook a step closer to government regulation, something it is keen to avoid. And any major changes to the way it can collect data and use data that impacts the way its advertising works will raise concerns among advertisers that use the site in the most part for its ability to target. As would a consumer exodus, if one materialises.

“We don’t expect any big effect until advertisers are able to see the consumer response: will users abandon Facebook in droves in the core markets? If so, then an advertiser exodus will follow,” Littunen adds.

A loss of trust in companies and what they are doing with their data is also bad news both for the tech platforms and for any other businesses that rely on data. Sir Martin Sorrell, speaking at Ad Week earlier in the week, said he expects the news to make consumers “much more conscious” of what they sign up to.

He explained: “We will see consumers, as a result of the Cambridge Analytica case, being more careful and considered and understanding more fully, and there’s a response on us as agencies and media owners and indeed our clients.”

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) agrees that a response is needed, with brands needing to play a “major role” in rebuilding trust, even if that results in major upheaval.

Will Gilroy, head of public affairs and communications at the WFA, says: “What’s come out in recent weeks is nothing short of shocking. The implications go far beyond our industry and touch upon the very fabric of society.

“It’s symptomatic of an age where the digital ecosystem has lost its way. The notion that data can be collected without people knowing or consenting is plain wrong. We’re coming to the end of that era with the entry into force of GDPR – and that’s a good thing. Brands will need to play a major role in rebuilding a digital ecosystem where people decide who they share their data with, when and how. No doubt this will lead to major upheavals in the industry but that’s the only sustainable option. We are working with our partners around the world to start to rebuild much needed trust.”