Overdue political ad transparency at Facebook informs public

Less than a year after I called for tech companies to publish a a public political ad file as open data online, Facebook has committed to doing so this August, through an API.
Working with Congress to draft a law that would mandate it may have played a role:
It’s good to Mark Zuckerberg for acting, and  Rob Leathern & Rob Goldman for listening and being responsive, over on Twitter. The immediate outcome is a better informed public.
This story by The New York Times on campaign finance spending on Facebook is based upon research by New York University academics scraping the new database:
Facebook told the Times that “it welcomed the new study and hoped others would begin delving into its data.”
“This report is the exactly how we hoped the tool would be used — outside experts helping to analyze these ads on Facebook,” said Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management. “It brings more transparency to the messages people see and increases accountability and responsibility over time, not just for us but advertisers as well.”
Making that data open from the start, however, would have saved them work and empowered everyone to inform the public. The researchers at this university did the work that Facebook should have .
Every democratic state that the world’s biggest social network would have been better served Facebook had baked in transparency in the public interest by default instead of lobbying against laws & regulations.
It’s worth noting, in that context, that this new ad archive contains domestic ads, not the “dark ads” from Russia, and that Facebook still is not beating any sort of public drum for regulation and legislation, despite Zuckerberg’s pledge before Congress.
Self-regulation isn’t enough. As I wrote earlier this summer, Facebook, its founder and its staff still need to follow through its promises and their public obligations. Transparency remains a democratic imperative and a national security issue.

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