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 … Continue reading
This past week, Facebook launched a new political ad transparency website. Facebook believes that “shining a light on ads” will increase transparency, which in turn “will lead to increased accountability & responsibility over time – not just for Facebook but advertisers as well.“
I think they’re right — which should be no surprise given my focus on advocating for more political transparency in Washington over the two years I spent at the Sunlight Foundation — but reviewing reports of unlabeled political ads is going to be hard.
Overall, this site is a welcome step towards more transparency, but misses the mark. The site only “exceeds expectations” if you think a search interface that exposes no underlying data is sufficient to inform the public and regulators.
In my initial assessment, I concur with journalists who found Facebook’s new political ad system is missing a lot, as ProPublica reported. (Please install ProPublica’s political ad collector so they can inform the public about how well Facebook’s tool actually works.)
It was easy to use @Facebook‘s new archive of “ads with political content” – essentially a simple search tool for paid political ads that have run since May 7, 2018 – once I got on my laptop and logged in. I found recent ads that matched Trump, Clinton, gun control & corruption. pic.twitter.com/Fhx0lrMzBE
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) May 24, 2018
On the one hand, it was easy to use Facebook’s new archive of “ads with political content” – essentially a simple search tool for paid political ads that have run since May 7, 2018 – at least once I got on my laptop and logged into Facebook. I found recent ads that matched Trump, Clinton, gun control and corruption.
If you click on “see ad performance,” you can learn more about each ad.
If you click “see ad performance,” you see the ad content, who paid, when it was active, how many impressions it received, total spent, & breakdown of audience by age, gender & location.
But clicking “view all ads” brings you to aggregate search results, NOT the page or a profile pic.twitter.com/8XtzmWqdYy
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) May 24, 2018
If you click on the username, you arrive at the Page behind the ads. Unfortunately, there’s no tab for political ads or link to this archive. It’s hard to see how folks will find them, without it.
If you click on the username – in this case, Donald Trump, @realDonaldTrump‘s campaign account on @Facebook – you arrive at the Page behind the ads. Unfortunately, there’s no tab for political ads or link to this archive. It’s hard to see how folks will find them, without it. pic.twitter.com/EASlccVAhF
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) May 24, 2018
As I noted on Twitter, however, there’s one more critical wrinkle: you can’t get to the page unless you’re logged into Facebook!
This would be hilariously ironic, if it weren’t for the context of Russian interference and how Facebook handled it. Self-regulation is not enough.
As sociology professor Zeynep Tufecki noted, no one — whether member of the public, the press, watchdog, academic, regulator or legislator – should have to agree to Facebook’s Terms of Service and become a user to access political data.
😱 You shouldn’t have to agree to Facebook TOS in order to access information about political reports. In fact, that is a core problem. I’ve seen examples where schools put *emergency* information on Facebook and people have to agree to FB TOS to learn whether children are safe. https://t.co/6kmsOXgYgu
— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) May 24, 2018
To Facebook’s credit, the director of product at Facebook, Rob Leathern, responded publicly to Tufecki on Twittter, stating that this page is a first step:
“More ways are coming to make the ads with political content and information more accessible to people. One of those is an API, another is exploring opening the archive to people not on Facebook. We started with the Facebook community to see how they use the tool and gain feedback from third parties, including our newly-formed Election Commission. We’ll continue to update on our progress.”
If Facebook started with open data with no log-in, they could have gotten feedback from third parties like the Center for Responsive Politics or the public. No one should have to be part of Facebook’s “community” to understand who is buying electioneering on the platform, for whom, and what’s being shown.
As I commented to Leathern, if Facebook is only “exploring” making this archive open to people not on Facebook, then it is not implementing the Honest Ads Act, as its staff has claimed to Congress and the public. I asked Facebook to post a public ad file as bulk open data on the open Web.
Leathern told me that “we have prioritized getting the archive in the hands of people to use (as of today) + will follow up soon with an archive API. Thank you for the feedback, we are definitely listening.”
That’s good news, but not good enough.
Real transparency at Facebook will look like a public file of all paid political ads that are disclosed on a public website with bulk open data downloads and an API, none of which require the public to log into the site.
The good news is that I think Facebook understands this page as a start, not an end. In a post that closes matches what he told me, Leathern wrote that they’re “working closely” with a new “Election Commission” to launch an API for the archives.
It’s good news, but no deadline cited.
It’s hard for me not to be happy that Facebook is finally explicitly embracing political ad transparency in words and (some) deeds, including public soul searching about what constitutes a political ad and a policy.
It’s just long overdue. Ultimately, elected representatives should be the ones to enact standards for transparency for political ads online after debate, not tech company executives.
Until Congress and other legislatures around the world empower regulators like Federal Election Commission by updating electioneering rules and enacting standards for disclaimers and disclosures, however, I’m glad to see positive actions.
I hope Facebook, its founder and its staff deliver on its most recent promises and their public obligations. Given past, current or predictable interference, opacity is unpatriotic.
The Bot Wars, begun they have. Over the past two years, automated social media accounts and fraudulent regulatory filings have been used by anonymous parties to obscure public opinion, distort public discourse, and corrupt the integrity of rulemaking in the … Continue reading
Today, Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Ajit Pai released a statement & fact sheet on the non-public FCC’s proposal for Open Internet Rules, which would be applied to regulating broadband Internet service providers. He tweeted out a picture of himself holding the document (above) several days ago. In his statement today, Pai said that the American people are being misled about what’s in the rules and broke out an outline of the 300-page document. Reporting and analysis of Pai’s objections to the proposal may be found at the New York Times and National Journal. Subsequent to Pai’s statement and press conference, FCC Special Counsel for External Affairs Gigi Sohn tweeted out a series of rebuttals, including a clarification regarding the size of the document.
Here, I’ll focus on something else: the commissioner took FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to task for not releasing them ahead of the scheduled vote on February 26th, in DC, although Pai did note that doing so would be “unprecedented.” In fact, FCC commissioner Mike O’Rielly tweeted much the same thing, stating that “all FCC meeting items should be made public when circulated to Commissioners. ”
In August, I wrote a blog post urging the Commission to post on its website the actual text of the items to be considered at our Open Meetings at the same time they are provided to Commissioners. I made the suggestion because the inability of the public to obtain a complete picture of what is in a pending notice of proposed rulemaking or order routinely leads to confusion over what exactly is at stake. Making matters worse, Commissioners are not allowed to reveal the substantive details to outside parties. We can’t even correct inaccurate impressions that stakeholders may have received, and we are barred from discussing what changes we are seeking. This barrier to a fulsome exchange can be extremely frustrating for all involved. Despite positive feedback from people at the FCC, outside parties, Members of Congress,  and the general public, four months later, we have yet to post a single meeting item in advance. Moreover, the lack of full disclosure and transparency has continued to be a problem as some parties have not been fully briefed on recent items, such as the recently adopted 911 Reliability NPRM, while others are not briefed at all. The reason that nothing has happened, I am told, is that there are two basic concerns with the proposal: 1) that it could be harder to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA); and 2) that it could be more difficult to withhold documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I do not find either argument persuasive or insurmountable
Wheeler took a question on this issue in a press conference last month: “The precedent here, through Democratic chairmen and Republican chairmen, has always been that just like, you know, in the court system, and elsewhere that when you’re handling cases like this, you have an internal discussion and then you release what the result of that vote is. And you don’t change that decades of precedent overnight without following the procedures to review questions like that.”
Asked for comment, FCC press secretary Kim Hart Jonson said that “Chairman Wheeler circulated his proposal to his fellow Commissioners three weeks before the planned vote in accordance with long-standing FCC process. We are confident the other Commissioners will give the proposal an exhaustive review. The Chairman looks forward to receiving their input and releasing it to the public after the February 26 vote.”
What this boils down to is that publishing proposed rules before a vote is technically legal but has never been done before. As Pai himself noted, “FCC rules prohibit disclosure of nonpublic information except as authorized by the Chairman.” Then-FCC chairman Julius Genachowski didn’t pull the full version of the 2010 Open Internet rules up until right before Christmas, well after the vote. The standard FCC procedure for rulemaking is to circulate the draft rules at least 3 weeks prior to a vote, incorporate edits received from FCC commissioners, then finalize everything. In practice, however, some commissioners have complained that edits may be made right up until a vote. Once rules have been voted upon, they’re published in the federal register.
As long-time readers know, I was critical of that decision at the time, and remain so. To reiterate what I said them, Genachowski made a commitment to a more open, transparent and data-driven F.C.C. under President Obama’s Open Government Directive. In many respects, in its first year of open government, the agency made commendable progress, with strides towards taking public comment through e-rulemaking at OpenInternet.gov, Broadband.gov and Reboot.FCC.gov. The sites were deployed by an able new media team that has used online communications in unprecedented ways. The chairman and his managing director, Steven Van Roeckel, both deserved credit for their plans to reboot FCC.gov as a platform for government including the use of APIs and open source technologies like Drupal.
When it comes to the question of whether the public could see the proposed Open Internet rules before the commissioners vote upon it, the agency fell short of its transparency pledge. I have not found a legal precedent that explicitly gives the agency authority to keep the text of a proposed rule secret until it is voted upon by the Commission. While it is true that the FCC does not appear to be under no legal obligation to do so, given that the members of the commission presumably had to negotiate on the details of the final rules for vote, the decision not to share a version publicly may have made such discussion more flexible.
The choice not to post the proposed rules online before the most reced vote is an example of the same level of government transparency in the creation of important regulation as before, not more. It’s possible that the legal context for how the FCC operates might change in the future, if a bill by Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) were to be passed. Per his office, the FCC Reform Act would:
“provide more opportunities for the public to see pending FCC action by publishing the exact rule or amendment to a rule for at least 21 days and by allowing any Commissioner to ask for a vote on any order issued by a bureau. *Enhance consistency and transparency in the Commission’s operations by requiring the FCC to establish procedures for handling extensive new data submitted towards the end of a comment period, adequate review and deliberation regarding pending orders, providing the status of open rulemaking proceedings, minimum public review periods for statistical reports and ex parte communications. *Empower the Commission to operate more efficiently through reform of the “sunshine” rules, allowing a bipartisan majority of Commissioners to meet for collaborative discussions subject to transparency safeguards.
A provision that the FCC must “identify a market failure, consumer harm, or regulatory barrier to investment before adopting economically significant rules,” however, may well mean that Democrats in the Senate won’t support its advance. As always with these net neutrality stories, to be continued.
UPDATE: Commissioner Pai tweeted another picture of a revised plan February 21, including his intention to vote against it and again noting that the public cannot see it before the vote. In the tweet, he says the plan is now 317 pages, which means it has been trimmed by 15 pages.
Here is Pres. Obama’s revised 317-page plan to regulate the Internet. The public still can’t see it. I’m voting no. pic.twitter.com/RirBVPChmV
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) February 25, 2015