Facebook urged to offer an API for political ad transparency research

By Natasha Lomas

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 …read more

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