Sunday 18 August 2019

Steve Dempsey: Tech giants face ad clampdown

'The Honest Ads Act would make political advertising subject to the same rules of disclosure as political ads in traditional media.'
'The Honest Ads Act would make political advertising subject to the same rules of disclosure as political ads in traditional media.'
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Last Tuesday, representatives from Facebook, Twitter, Google faced questions from the US Senate Judiciary Committee. The following day the tech giants were invited to intelligence committee hearings.

Both committees focused on the relationship between social media, online advertising and Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Both have far wider ramifications for political advertising, privacy and how misinformation is spread in the modern world. Neither were plain sailing for the social networks.

They were grilled on whether they've yet figured out the full scope of outside interference in political advertising, whether registered voter data was used to customise advertising to individuals, whether they would share private messages, and why they failed to realise that election ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia.

The tone was summed up by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. "You've created these platforms," she said. "And now they're being misused. You have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will."

But so far, Facebook, Twitter and Google haven't been over-eager to come up with a solution. In fact, they've been slow to accept there was a problem in the first place. Take Facebook. Its response seems to follow the following pattern. First, nothing happened; second, OK it happened but it was small; finally, OK 126 million people were affected, but there's no indication that these voters were influenced.

The Silicon Valley companies have indicated that they favour some form of self-governance around political advertising on their platforms. They have also refused to endorse the bipartisan Honest Ads act - which is the one piece of legislation that US lawmakers have concocted.

The Honest Ads Act would make political advertising subject to the same rules of disclosure as political ads in traditional media. It would mean any platform with over 50 million monthly users would have to monitor political advertising, and police any advertiser spending over $500 to promote a political candidate or a cause. Sounds good. But sadly, the bill lacks teeth, is limited in scope and technologically out of step.

While it may increase transparency, it wouldn't prevent Russian troll farms or Macedonian teenagers from serving lies, damn lies or party political messages. Also, it is limited to paid advertising. It doesn't address organic posts and viral content - often spread by armies of bots - which can support or undermine a political campaign. And most troubling, the act is anachronistic. Because online ad buying doesn't follow the same patterns as traditional ad buying, it's not sufficient to extend the rules around electioneering from traditional to digital media. Campaigns have evolved from one core creative, to many messages, often tailored for maximum impact with a particular profile or demographic, sold at scale through exchanges.

If legislators, in the US and elsewhere, want to protect their democratic processes and safeguard social discourse then something a bit more robust is called for. So what would that look like? And is it even possible?

Well, social networks and online advertisers need to submit to some form of regulation. A little bit of oversight could help with issues of ad fraud and viewability as well, but that's a different story. This oversight needs to be international in nature. Easier said than done, but, we're beginning to see the germs of this approach. Legislators in the US and UK are working on bilateral agreement on data sharing between the two countries. This would allow law enforcement and security agencies from one country to access data controlled or stored by companies in the other country. And any response needs to understand how the advertising ecosystem works. Getting advertisers to keep track of all political ads, the different creative executions, and who's buying them isn't easy. Facebook for example, serves hundreds of millions of unique ads per quarter. It would be impossible for the company to review every ad and vet the buyers.

So a holistic solution actually involves tech giants submitting to independent oversight, full international co-operation on data and a method of keeping track of ad operations at a scale previously unimaginable. Let's add one more element to the mix. Legislators need to educate themselves on the operations of the companies they are now dealing with. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin did, after all, ask why Facebook didn't "hold the phone" when a Russian intelligence agency was booking ads.

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