Facebook answers to Oireachtas committee raise further questions
Net Results: Social media giant opaque on referendum advertising campaigns
Questions to Facebook Ireland from members of the Oireachtas joint committee on communications had a particular focus on the company’s political advertisement policies. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images
Facebook Ireland recently submitted written responses to formal queries the company received from members of the Oireachtas joint committee on communications last April, but they beg as many questions as they purport to answer.
The 17-page document offers replies to questions put to the company during a hearing that month, when an executive team from Facebook, led by Facebook vice-president of global policy Joel Kaplan, came before the committee to apologise for what the social media giant termed a “huge violation of trust” after Facebook failed to protect millions of users’ data in the Cambridge Analytica breach.
As subsequent investigations have indicated, that data was used to target online ads in an attempt to sway voters towards Donald Trump in the US presidential election, and for Brexit in the UK referendum.
The committee had requested the Facebook hearing in the context of discussing proposed legislation from Fianna Fáil backbencher and committee vice-chairman James Lawless that aims to regulate online political advertisements.
So the questions had a particular focus on Facebook’s political advertisement policies, a timely concern in the lead-up to the May referendum on the Eighth Amendment here.
The majority of written questions came from Green Party leader and TD Eamon Ryan and Senator Alice Mary Higgins, who grilled the company on its privacy and security policies in questions that elicited some interestingly opaque responses.
As with answers given around the same time by Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to the US Congress and the European Parliament, they are technically answers, but don’t really address the intent of the question.
In a few places, they just seem plain garbled. Asked by Ryan about the ability to use a phone number to search for someone, Facebook replies that they have suspended this feature. Yet profiles still have a default setting allowing people to search by phone number, which cannot be turned off.
Then there are the slippery answers. One example involves Ryan’s questions about how restricted Facebook’s use is of sensitive data protected under the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – information such as political affiliation.
It turns out some of that information can be effectively moved sideways into the more flexible category of “personal interest”: “If a Facebook user “likes” the Facebook page of a political party/parties or a political representative/s, which would allow the owner of the page to see who liked their page, Facebook does not take that as an indication of their political opinion, but rather an interest in the topic represented by the page.” This shows how much of a person’s private life can be understood simply by inference, but also suggests the fuzziness of data in these important categories needs to be re-examined and a broader range of data given more protection.
Facebook’s answer to Senator Higgins on whether the company will roll out full GDPR protections globally is also vague. “Everyone on Facebook will have the same tools and controls over how we use data,” Facebook replied. But having the same controls and tools is not the same as giving the broad GDPR protections specifically available to Europeans.
Ryan asked whether the company would hand over data about the funding behind and audience for ad campaigns in our referendum – because, as he noted in his question, “Facebook already has the comprehensive picture of this spend.”
Facebook dodged this. “Unfortunately, that is not data that we have readily available in relation to the recent referendum, but we are working hard to deploy [a new transparency tool] for future elections/referenda.”
This, as Ryan rightly notes, is not very transparent at all.
“Myself and my Green colleagues in Brussels have asked Facebook to provide information on the volume and value of online advertising during the recent repeal referendum. We need that data to understand what happened during the campaign and to set a precedent for future elections, ” he says.
“It is not ideal to be retrospectively applying such standards but Facebook themselves opened the door when they unilaterally changed the advertising rules with just three weeks to go to polling day. They now need to provide the data which the [crowd-sourced] Transparent Referendum Initiative is looking for so we have a final picture of what happened during the online campaign.”
He suggests that Facebook could work with the Dynamics Lab in UCD to aggregate and present the data in a safe and secure way. Doing so would give Facebook the chance to test some of the transparency tools they say they are developing, he says.
“This is the best chance they have to set some standards and get the processing of election advertising spending right. The company has turned down my written application, but we are continuing to press the issue and I am hopeful they may be able to do it. We will be looking for Google to do the same next.”
As both of these companies took their first international steps towards better managing political ad spending during the Irish referendum, it would make perfect sense for them now to step up and provide the data – which of course, these data giants have – for analysis.