How Congress could regulate Facebook vs. how Mark Zuckerberg wants to do it himself

Pillars of democracy.
Pillars of democracy.
Image: AP/Facebook
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The push to regulate Facebook is on in earnest in Washington, DC—and the company seems resigned to the idea that more oversight is inevitable.

Two Senate Democrats are circulating a letter on Capitol Hill, hoping to drum up support for a bill that would make the social-media giant disclose more information about who is buying political ads on its platform and whom those ads target. Quartz has seen a copy of the letter, dated Sept. 21 and signed by Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia. “Facebook now seems to realize there is a major gap in transparency and accountability for digital ads,” it reads.

Asked about the letter, a spokesperson for Facebook said that the company is “open to reviewing any specific congressional proposals.”

Earlier this month, the company disclosed that Facebook accounts with links to a known Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, had spent $100,000 on political advertising. It found another $50,000 in spending on “potentially political” ads that was also linked to Russia.

Facebook’s Russian ad problem could be larger than already disclosed, the senators’ letter says, echoing what people briefed on the matter told Quartz after Facebook gave testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday. “It is possible that additional political advertisements and communications by Russian operatives were made on Facebook, and other social media platforms, to influence the electorate,” it reads.

Regulation of online political ads is too weak, the senators write, and the US government needs to change that. The Federal Election Commission, the US agency tasked with ensuring fair elections, “has failed to take sufficient action to address online political advertisements, and our current laws do not address online political advertisements published on platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter,” the letter reads. The senators are inviting cosponsors to a bill that would “enhance transparency” in online advertising overall, and “formalize and expand” commitments Facebook has already made.

Facebook is not sitting still, however. On Sept. 21, his first day back from paternity leave, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a post on Facebook, laid out the company’s plan to “protect election integrity and make sure that Facebook is a force for good in democracy.” Presumably, he’s hoping to forestall any new regulation. Nonetheless, the company has softened its position considerably in just the last few days, culminating in its statement today that it’s open to reviewing proposed regulation.

Here’s what the Democratic senators are proposing, compared to what Zuckerberg says the company plans to do:

Make a public list

Senators: Require all digital platforms with one million or more users to “maintain a public file of all electioneering communications purchased by a person or group who spends more than $10,000 aggregate dollars for online political advertisements.”

Facebook: “We’re going to make political advertising more transparent,” Zuckerberg wrote in his post. The company will require advertisers to disclose who paid for each ad, he said. But he didn’t say whether that information will be publicly available in aggregate, or whether the amount advertisers spent on the ads will be public.

Key questionHow public will the data be, and will it include amounts?

Disclose content

Senators: Make public digital copies of any advertisement these groups purchase, including the dates and times published.

Facebook: The company will require advertisers to maintain pages where they list all of the ads they’re currently running, Zuckerberg said. He did not mention whether those pages will also list the dates and times the ads were published.

Key question: How much information about these ads will the public get to see?

Identify the audience

Senators: The list should “include a description of the audience” the advertisement targeted, and the number of views generated.

Facebook: “Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad,” Zuckerberg said in his statement, “but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook.” Does that mean the advertiser’s pages will list the demographics each ad is targeted at? The language was ambiguous, and Zuckerberg did not elaborate.

Key question: Will the public be able to see not only which ads have been bought but who they’re aimed at?

Identify the advertisers

Senators: The list should include the “contact information of the purchaser.”

Facebook: If the pages Facebook will require advertisers to maintain work like other organizational pages on the platform, the advertisers will certainly have the option of providing contact information. But Zuckerberg did not say whether Facebook will require it.

Key question: Will the ad buyers’ contact information be a requirement?

Make payments public

Senators: The list should include the “rates charged.”

Facebook: This remains an open question, but based on Zuckerberg’s statement, does not appear to be a standard the company wants to hold itself to.

Key question: Without knowing the ad rates, will it be possible to assess how much Facebook is benefiting from political ads?

Weed out foreign buyers

Senators: Digital platforms should “make reasonable efforts to ensure that electioneering communications are not purchased by a foreign national, directly or indirectly.”

Facebook: Zuckerberg said the company will work to improve its review process for political ads, but added that he has no plans to add more humans to that process, and that Facebook can’t be expected to catch everything. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re going to catch all bad content in our system,” he said. “We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society should want us to.”

Key question: What exactly is a “reasonable effort”? This seems to be where the the gulf between what Facebook is proposing and what Democratic senators want is the widest. If Facebook continues to rely on the same automated ad systems that failed to catch the Russian campaign, will legislators consider that “reasonable?” Government regulations could end up calling for more human involvement in ad buying process, which Facebook clearly wants to avoid.

If Klobuchar and Warner, write a full bill, there’s no guarantee it will pass the Republican-controlled Senate or House—or that the regulations-adverse White House will sign it. On Friday, US president Donald Trump tweeted once again that he didn’t believe US intelligence agencies’ concerns about Russian interference in the US election, writing “The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook.”