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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Facebook Removes Dating Ads Featuring Photo of Dead Girl

Facebook has apologized for dating ads that recently appeared on its service that featured a photo of a Canadian teenager, Rehtaeh Parsons, who hanged herself in April.

Ms. Parsons’s case has received much publicity in Canada because she had been the target of cyberbullying because of online circulation of photos taken of her after an alleged gang rape in 2011. Critics said the initial crime was poorly investigated by the police, who recently reopened the case.

The “Find Love in Canada” ads with photos of Ms. Parsons were placed on Facebook by one of the many dating sites that barrage users of the social network. The site, ionechat.com, apparently pulled news photos of Ms. Parsons off the Web after reports of her suicide and used them without authorization in the ad. The owner of the site, which has been shut down, told The Toronto Sun that he had used the photo by mistake and wasn’t aware of the the girl’s background. Facebook said it had blocked the company from submitting future ads.

“This is an extremely unfortunate example of an advertiser scraping an image from the Internet and using it in their ad campaign,” Facebook said in a statement. “This is a gross violation of our ad policies and we have removed the ad and permanently deleted the advertiser’s account. We apologize for any harm this has caused.”

The incident comes as the Federal Trade Commission is conducting an inquiry into Facebook’s proposed changes to its privacy policies. Privacy advocates say the changes would give Facebook wider latitude to use the names and photos of teenagers in ads and also would allow the company to use photos of its users in facial recognition software that would help their friends tag them in other photos.

The publication of the ads featuring Ms. Parsons’s face highlights a weakness in the advertising systems of Facebook and many other Web sites. The sites run so many ads that the process of submitting and screening them is automated, allowing some objectionable ads to get through.

While Facebook’s computers scan for obvious violations of its advertising policy, such as ads that feature nudity or automatic weapons, they cannot easily detect more subtle issues. In this case, Facebook said, its computers would not have known why a photo of the girl was problematic.

Facebook said it relied on users to report objectionable content, which is then reviewed by a team of people at the company.

The exact process of reporting an objectionable ad varies by the type of ad, but generally, a user can click on the little X or arrow or Hide Story button that is at the top right corner of the ad. That should pull up a list of options for why the user wants to block or report or hide the content.

In the case of Ms. Parsons, Andrew Ennals, a Canadian ad copywriter, caught the attention of Facebook on Tuesday after he posted screenshots of the objectionable ads on Twitter.