Face­book de­lays iden­tity checks on UK po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ers

The Guardian Australia - - Technology / Sport - Alex Hern and Jim Water­son

Face­book is de­lay­ing its plans to re­quire Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ers to ver­ify their iden­tity, the Guardian can re­veal, after a spate of fail­ures on the part of the com­pany to vet dis­closers in the UK and US.

The so­cial net­work will bring in the re­quire­ment “in the next month”, it says, push­ing back the ini­tial dead­line of Wed­nes­day 7 Novem­ber.

“We have learnt that some peo­ple may try to game the dis­claimer sys­tem by en­ter­ing in­ac­cu­rate de­tails and have been work­ing to im­prove our re­view process to de­tect and pre­vent this kind of abuse,” a Face­book spokesper­son said in a state­ment.

“Once we have strength­ened our process for en­sur­ing the ac­cu­racy of dis­claimers, we will be in­tro­duc­ing en­force­ment sys­tems to iden­tify po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ers and re­quire them to go through the au­tho­ri­sa­tion process.”

Face­book launched the first phase of its UK po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing trans­parency ef­fort in Oc­to­ber, al­low­ing po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ers to reg­is­ter to prove their lo­ca­tion, and cre­at­ing a vol­un­tary sys­tem whereby they could dis­close who had paid for par­tic­u­lar ad­verts, and add them to an Ad Li­brary where they would be archived for seven years.

The com­pany had ini­tially planned to make the sys­tem com­pul­sory by 7 Novem­ber, but in the in­ter­ven­ing time, a dam­ag­ing se­ries of sto­ries cast doubts on the ef­fec­tive­ness of the pro­ject.

In the US, Vice News used the sys­tem to “dis­close” that ad­verts were paid for by ev­ery sin­gle US se­na­tor, vice-pres­i­dent Mike Pence, and Is­lamic State. Face­book ap­proved ev­ery dis­clo­sure, and the ad­verts en­tered the ar­chive in­tact.

In the UK, Busi­ness In­sider sim­i­larly “dis­closed” that ad­verts at­tack­ing Brexit were paid for by Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, the now-de­funct po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tancy whose ac­qui­si­tion of the per­sonal data of more than 100 mil­lion Face­book users sparked a scan­dal ear­lier this year.

The in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism or­gan­i­sa­tion ProPublica high­lighted one re­al­world con­se­quence of the pol­icy: a se­ries of pro-Trump ad­verts that were at­trib­uted to “En­er­gy4US” on the so­cial net­work, a com­pany that has no off­line ex­is­tence. In fact, ProPublica dis­cov­ered, En­er­gy4US “ap­pears to be a front for Amer­i­can Fuel amp; Petro­chem­i­cal Man­u­fac­tur­ers, a trade as­so­ci­a­tion whose mem­bers in­clude ExxonMo­bil, BP, Chevron and Shell”.

Face­book said: “Since we an­nounced our po­lit­i­cal ads au­tho­ri­sa­tion and Ad Li­brary in Oc­to­ber we have seen hun­dreds of peo­ple go through the au­tho­ri­sa­tion process. Au­tho­rised ad­ver­tis­ers cre­ate a ‘paid for by’ dis­claimer as part of this process and we re­quire them to rep­re­sent them­selves ac­cu­rately when they fill this in.”

Other so­cial net­works take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Twit­ter, for in­stance, also re­quires Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ers to dis­close who paid for ad­verts, but re­quires that dis­clo­sure to be linked to an em­ployer record, lim­it­ing the abil­ity of po­ten­tially ma­li­cious ac­tors to cre­ate fic­tional iden­ti­ties.

Face­book de­clined to set a new date for the fi­nal stage of its UK roll­out of the ad trans­parency rules, telling the Guardian: “We will con­tinue to roll out and re­fine these sys­tems out over the next month so that we have a higher level of pro­tec­tion in place be­fore next May’s lo­cal elec­tions.”

The ver­i­fi­ca­tion re­quire­ment will be brought in next month, Face­book says. Pho­to­graph:Ay­taç Ünal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Face­book’s founder and CEO, Mark Zucker­berg. Pho­to­graph: Charles Pla­tiau/Reuters

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