Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called in front of the US legislators on Capitol Hill this week after it was discovered that millions of users' data was improperly obtained by a UK-based political consultancy group, Cambridge Analytica. They allegedly used that information to help target ads to support Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom.

While Zuckerberg apologised and pledged to ensure such a data breach can never happen again, this scenario is a reflection of the ever-changing world of online advertising in which technologies help companies make money from processing users' personal data.

The advertisement practices have changed on Facebook over time. And what has happened is the targeting has become ever more precise and ever more invasive. It's one thing to declare that you're interested in something and receive an ad - it's something entirely different if you're being tracked around everything you do, if the company then uses this data to make fine grain profiles of you and then target advertisement.

Frederike Kaltheuner, data scientist,Privacy International

There is a lack of transparency, trust and even insight into how this world operates.

Facebook puts out a lot of information on how to buy ads on its platform. The social network shows you how to create ads that don't look like ads, in what is known as native advertising.

Companies can then choose their audience based on demographics, location, interests and behaviour. They can feed ads to other apps and mobile websites through the Facebook audience network.

All of this is completely unregulated.

According to GroupM data, by the end of 2017, Google and Facebook had an 84 percent share of global digital media - excluding China. Traditional media and ad agencies just can't compete.

Google and Facebook share none of the responsibility of traditional media and insist on being called technology companies - despite making more money from ads than every newspaper, magazine, and radio network in the world combined.

A "duopoly" has formed in the world's advertising industry, but even industry insiders admit they don't exactly know how it all works.

Frederike Kaltheuner, a data programme lead at Privacy International talks to Counting the Cost about Facebook, privacy, the secret world of online advertising, and regulation.

She says the conversation is about how "companies use personal data, and as it stands people cannot understand the way in which companies can exploit their data for advertisement."

"Facebook loves to talk about the data you share on Facebook, but prefers to talk less about the data you share with them. The data ecosystem in many countries around the world is heavily underregulated and the current scandal shows how urgently regulation is needed.

"Companies like Facebook love to talk about content, they love to talk about the data you share because this puts the onus on the consumer. Privacy setting means that it is your responsibility to control what data people can access But in reality, companies track you around the web, companies track you across devices, they use this data to profile you and then target advertisement," says Kaltheuner.

"So there's the misconception that Facebook shares data, but it allows advertisements instead to target you in very precise criteria, and that's exactly what has happened here," explains Kaltheuner. On the deepest level, "it is the invasiveness about finding very specific audiences, and in a political context, that becomes very problematic."

"The advertisement practices have changed on Facebook over time. And what has happened is the targeting has become ever more precise and ever more invasive. It's one thing to declare that you're interested in something and receive an ad. It's something entirely different if you're being tracked around everything you do, if the company then uses this data to make fine grain profiles of you and then target advertisement. It's not just about advertisement ... [Facebook] can still make money with advertisements without targeting them at that fine grain level," says Kaltheuner.

The French president's big test

French President Emmanuel Macron has been defending his economic policies. He's facing a big test, as the first anniversary of his election nears: the reform of the railways.

Unions are casting the dispute as an attack on unions in general and a defence of state ownership against privatisation.

Macron's challenge is to convince people that his mission to modernise is not in the interests of the rich.

Will he be derailed in his attempt to shake up the world's fifth largest economy?

Also on Counting the Cost:

Russia, Rusal and the metal market: This week, after US President Donald Trump warned Russia to "get ready" for US missiles to be fired at Syria, the Russian rouble dropped over 10 percent against the US dollar. And moves by the US to slap sanctions on Russian businessmen and their companies started to bite in the metals market.

The sanctions bar US entities from doing business with the named individuals and companies, including Oleg Deripaska and his aluminium company Rusal, which is the largest aluminium producer outside of China.

US-China trade: The ongoing trade spat between the US and China may be cooling off, at least for now. US President Donald Trump even welcomed a promise by China to open up its economy further. That's despite China filing a complaint with the World Trade Organisation, challenging Trump's tariff hikes, as Adrian Brown reports from Shanghai.

Middle East bond markets: Qatar raised $12bn in its first dollar bond sale in two years. Saudi Arabia issued $11bn of debt earlier in the week. It's the first capital raising by both countries since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar, closing their land, air and sea borders. Qatar is rated three notches higher than Saudi Arabia by S&P Global Ratings. The International Monetary Fund said last month that the financial impact of the blockade is now fading.

Afghanistan bees: Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan surged 63 percent last year, according to the Brookings Institute. Battling the opium trade is a huge task. But one young Afghan woman is trying just that, through a honey business. Rob Matheson reports.

Source: Al Jazeera