Facebook, Twitter and Google are taking a ‘blatantly fragmented’ approach to political ad transparency, according to a new report from Privacy International.
The companies are applying different policies in different countries, self-regulating only when under pressure from governments or civil society to act.
“Companies that rely on people’s data to establish their market dominance should give all users heightened ad transparency, and transparency into the targeting and funding of ads should be meaningful,” says Sara Nelson, of PI’s Defending Democracy and Dissent project.
Facebook, for example, only requires political advertisers to become authorised or for political ads to carry disclosures in around 17 per cent of the countries in the world. Google provides heightened transparency for political ads in 30 countries – around 15 per cent.
Twitter, meanwhile, provides heightened transparency only for ads tied to specific elections, rather than political ads more generally, and does this in 32 countries. Outside of the US, Twitter treats political ads or political issue ads in the same ways as promoted tweets, meaning that these ads (which are political, but not tied to an election), run without heightened transparency.
In one example, a UK Brexit Party ad – now deleted – wasn’t marked political, meaning that no targeting information was available.
In any case, says the report, the companies don’t provide meaningful transparency into political issue ads – Google, indeed, doesn’t even attempt to identify them.
“What this analysis shows is that Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which should work to set strong transparency standards, have taken the deliberate decision to provide heightened ad transparency to some users and to others, nothing. What does it mean when a company, like Google, can reportedly earn $32.6 billion in one quarter from digital advertising, but be unwilling to provide their users with meaningful transparency about how those ads are targeted?” says Nelson.
“It’s clear that self regulation doesn’t seem to be working – and there are existing tools that should be strongly implemented as a first step to ensuring users globally are treated fairly. Strong data protection laws should be implemented and electoral law should be updated.”