Facebook has been called upon to provide good faith researchers with an API to enable them to study how political ads are spreading and being amplified on its platform.
A coalition of European academics, technologists and human and digital rights groups, led by Mozilla, has signed an open letter to the company demanding far greater transparency about how Facebook’s platform distributes and amplifies political ads ahead of elections to the European parliament which will take place in May.
We’ve reached out to Facebook for a reaction to the open letter.
The company had already announced it will launch some of its self-styled ‘election security’ measures in the EU before then — specifically an authorization and transparency system for political ads.
Last month its new global comms guy — former European politician and one time UK deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg — also announced that, from next month, it will have human-staffed operations centers up and running to monitor how localised political news gets distributed on its platform, with one of the centers located within the EU, in Dublin, Ireland.
But signatories to the letter argue the company’s heavily PR’ed political ad transparency measures don’t go far enough.
They also point out that some of the steps Facebook has taken have blocked independent efforts to monitor its political ad transparency claims.
Last month the Guardian reported on changes Facebook had made to its platform that restricted the ability of an external political transparency campaign group, called WhoTargetsMe, to monitor and track the flow of political ads on its platform.
The UK-based campaign group is one of more than 30 groups that have signed the open letter — calling for Facebook to stop what they couch as “harassment of good faith researchers who are building tools to provide greater transparency into the advertising on your platform”.
Other signatories include the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Open Data Institute and Reporters Without Borders.
“By restricting access to advertising transparency tools available to Facebook users, you are undermining transparency, eliminating the choice of your users to install tools that help them analyse political ads, and wielding control over good faith researchers who try to review data on the platform,” they write.
“Your alternative to these third party tools provides simple keyword search functionality and does not provide the level of data access necessary for meaningful transparency.”
The letter calls on Facebook to roll out “a functional, open Ad Archive API that enables advanced research and development of tools that analyse political ads served to Facebook users in the EU” — and do so by April 1, to enable external developers to have enough time to build transparency tools before the EU elections.
Signatories also urge the company to ensure that all political ads are “clearly distinguished from other content”, as well as being accompanied by “key targeting criteria such as sponsor identity and amount spent on the platform in all EU countries”.
Last year UK policymakers investigating the democratic impacts of online disinformation pressed Facebook on the issue of what the information it provides users about the targeting criteria for political ads. They also asked the company why it doesn’t offer users a complete opt-out from receiving political ads. Facebook’s CTO Mike Schroepfer was unable — or unwilling — to provide clear answers, instead choosing to deflect questions by reiterating the tidbits of data that Facebook has decided it will provide.
Close to a year later and Facebook users in the majority of European markets are still waiting for even a basic layer of political transparency, as the company has been allowed to continue self regulating at its own pace and — crucially — by getting to define what ‘transparency’ means (and therefore how much of the stuff users get).
Facebook launched some of these self-styled political ad transparency measures in the UK last fall — adding ‘paid for by’ disclaimers, and saying ads would be retained in an archive for seven years. (Though its verification checks had to be revised after they were quickly shown to be trivially easy to circumvent.)
Earlier in the year it also briefly suspended accepting ads paid for by foreign entities during a referendum on abortion in Ireland.
However other European elections — such as regional elections — have taken place without Facebook users getting access to any information about the political ads they’re seeing or who’s paying for them.
The EU’s executive body has its eye on the issue. Late last month the European Commission published the first batch of monthly ‘progress reports’ from platforms and ad companies that signed up to a voluntary code of conduct on political disinformation that was announced last December — saying all signatories need to do a lot more and fast.
On Facebook specifically, the Commission said it needs to provide “greater clarity” on how it will deploy consumer empowerment tools, and also boost its cooperation with fact-checkers and the research community across the whole EU — with commissioner Julian King singling the company out for failing to provide independent researchers with access to its data.
Today’s open letter from academics and researchers backs up the Commission’s assessment of feeble first efforts from Facebook and offers further fuel to feed its next monthly assessment.
The Commission has continued to warn it could legislate on the issue if platforms fail to step up their efforts to tackle political disinformation voluntarily.
Pressuring platforms to self-regulate has its own critics too, of course — who point out that it does nothing to tackle the core underlying problem of platforms having too much power in the first place…
Update: In a statement responding to the open letter, attributed to Rob Leathern, its director of product management, Facebook said:
We’re committed to a new level of transparency to ads on Facebook and encourage others to do the same. That’s why we’re planning to open the Ad API in late March — at the same time as our already-announced program to label political ads ahead of the European Parliament election — so people on and off Facebook can analyze political ads and see them archived in a library for up to seven years. This work is important and part of our broader efforts to protect elections this year. We’re also bringing transparency tools for political ads to India, Israel, Ukraine, and globally in June.