Why can't questions be asked of Facebook's ads?

Kenan Malik
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

Facebook wants you to know that it’s being transparent about political ads, requiring advertisers to verify their identity and to show who paid for an ad.

But it doesn’t want to be too transparent. It has sent cease and desist letters to two New York University researchers, Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, part of the Online Political Transparency Project, who are investigating how people are targeted by ads. They helped develop a browser plug-in called Ad Observer, which allows people voluntarily to share data about political ads on Facebook. Edelson and McCoy are particularly interested in two aspects of political ads that Facebook won’t publicly discuss – how particular people are targeted and how campaigns craft messages based on criteria such as race or age.

Facebook claims that Ad Observer compromises privacy. This, observes Alex Abdo, a lawyer representing Edelson and McCoy, is “ridiculous”, given that “the plug-in’s users voluntarily sign up to donate data” and it “does not share any personally identifying information”. Facebook also claims that Ad Observer violates its terms of service by automating the collection of data. There are good reasons for blocking data aggregators, but Facebook is trying to block not data aggregation but academic research. It’s not the first time it has tried to do so. Researchers have long called for the company to allow research in the public interest. It has so far refused.

The issue here is not simply about political ads. It’s about who controls the narrative. At a time when Facebook, Twitter and other tech businesses are making huge decisions that affect public debate, from blocking tweets to taking down accounts, not only is transparency important, but it is important, too, that the tech giants themselves don’t get to define what it means.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist