Mozilla Concerned of Facebook’s Lack of Transparency

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Ionut Arghire

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Mozilla is concerned about Facebook’s lack of transparency regarding political advertising, Chief Operating Officer Denelle Dixon said last week in a letter to the European Commission.

Mozilla is currently working to launch its Firefox Election package for the European Union Parliament Elections and says it is not able to provide EU residents with the desired transparency, mainly due to challenges encountered with their Ad Analysis for Facebook add-on. 

The add-on, Dixon explains, analyzes a user’s Facebook feed to identify ads and how the user is being targeted, and informs the user on that. The data is also compared to information from public sources, to show differences in ads served to specific users.

“These two pieces of functionality are critical to bringing greater transparency to political advertising and to advertising in general. However, recent changes to the Facebook platform have prevented third parties from conducting analysis of the ads users are seeing. This limits our ability to deliver the first piece of functionality identified above,” the letter (PDF) reads. 

Dixon also points out that “there is currently a lack of publicly available data about political advertising on Facebook in the European Union that can be compared to information about what ads users are seeing.” 

The issue, Dixon says, is that Facebook hasn’t yet fulfilled its commitments under the Political advertising and issue-based advertisingsection of the Code of Practice on Disinformation

She also points out that, although Facebook said in August it would roll out an Ad Archive API to make “advertising more transparent to help prevent abuse on Facebook, especially during elections,” the social platform has kept the API private. 

Recently, Facebook also said it would release a new political transparency tool in March, but Mozilla believes the tool will be similar to the Ad Archive website made available in the United States last year. 

“This site allows for simple key word searches. We do not believe that the site meets the commitments in the Code. It has design limits that prevent more sophisticated research and trend analysis on the political ads,” Dixon notes. 

“Transparency cannot just be on the terms with which the world’s largest, most powerful tech companies are most comfortable. To have true transparency in this space, the Ad Archive API needs to be publicly available to everyone,” she continues. 

Dixon, who encourages the Commission to raise these concerns with Facebook directly, reveals that Mozilla has spoken to Facebook about these concerns, but that a path towards meaningful public disclosure of the data needed hasn’t been identified yet. 

“We urge Facebook to develop an open, functional API that can be used by any developer, researcher, or organisation to develop tools, critical insights, and research designed to educate and empower users to understand and therefore resist targeted disinformation campaigns,” Dixon notes. 

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