Facebook relaunches Atlas, its stalker-ish ad platform

By Nathaniel Mott , written on September 29, 2014

From The News Desk

Facebook has relaunched Atlas, the advertising platform with the ability to track the service's users across multiple devices, just as the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month. The hope is to entice advertisers with a network bolstered by Facebook's vast trove of user data.

Atlas solves a technical problem that has frustrated advertisers since consumers flocked to mobile devices: the inability to see how ads viewed on one device influence purchases made on other devices because digital "cookies," the Web's little stalkers, can't track smartphone activity.

I wrote about how sad it is that even this shred of privacy was viewed as a technical failing, after the Journal first revealed Facebook's plans to bolster Atlas' online tracking abilities:

Being able to browse around the Web without having to worry about advertisers connecting the dots between viewing an advertisement on a smartphone and purchasing something on a laptop was just a fluke. Now this new ad network is going to be “correcting the error,” so to speak.

Welcome to the modern era, where even a modicum of privacy is viewed as a technical failing that’s going to be solved by some company or another to appease the almighty advertisers. Bloomberg reports that Atlas will also help advertisers learn the efficacy of Instagram's ads, which are now available in the United States and will launch shortly in the United Kingdom, by connecting purchases made on one device to ads viewed through Instagram's mobile applications.

The network has other benefits, including access to Facebook's almost-incomprehensibly large collection of user-submitted data, but those are the main draws for the advertisers whose business Facebook is hoping to steal from Google's networks. And, as Re/code notes in its report on Atlas' relaunch, that's really what Facebook's after here:

Facebook and Google are already neck-and-neck in the display ads business, but right now it’s an asymmetric battle: Display ads are core to Facebook, but they remain a bolt-on for Google, which still revolves around search ads. This year, for instance, Google may generate $4 billion in display ads in the U.S. — and generate $54 billion in net revenue overall.

But some smart people I talk to suggest that what’s really at play here is data, not dollars: If Facebook can convince more publishers to let it into their ad business, it’s ultimately going to glean information that will makes its own ads, on its own properties, much more powerful. Google will watch closely. So if you find yourself wondering why some websites are showing advertisements which are uncannily relevant to you, there's your answer: they're probably using Atlas, which takes all of the information Facebook already holds and combines it with even better tracking that can move between desktop computers, smartphones, and tablets. Welcome to the new age.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]