Facebook has agreed to share more information about political advertising on its platform after dozens of campaigners, including Mozilla and Greenpeace, said the social network was engaged in “harassment of good faith researchers”.
Two weeks ago it emerged that Facebook had curbed researchers’ ability to collect political advertising data from its platform by prohibiting web plug-ins that would scrape information on the adverts they would see. Facebook said at the time that the move was part of a broader clampdown on third party plug-ins that in some cases might be used by malicious actors, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data leak.
Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, said in a tweet at the time: “We know we have more to do on the transparency front, but we also want to make sure that providing more transparency doesn’t come at the cost of exposing people’s private information.”
But on Monday the company appeared to change tack, saying it would open its advertising API — or integration “hook” that third parties can use to plug into its system — in “late March”.
In a statement, Mr Leathern said the change was “important” and part of the company’s “broader efforts to protect elections this year”.
The move came after more than 30 non-profit campaigners, academics and press freedom outfits earlier on Monday called on Facebook to “cease harassment of good faith researchers who are building tools to provide greater transparency into the advertising on your platform”.
“By restricting access to advertising transparency tools available to Facebook users, you are undermining transparency, eliminating the choice of your users to install tools that help them analyse political ads, and wielding control over good faith researchers who try to review data on the platform,” the group said in an open letter.
The social network launched its own ads transparency database ahead of May’s European Parliament elections, as part of efforts to tackle political disinformation.
But signatories to Monday’s open letter said that Facebook’s new alternative to the third party tools did “not provide the level of data access necessary for meaningful transparency” and had called for the platform to roll out an “open Ad Archive API”.
Last month Facebook said it was building a public database for EU political ads that will show the names and funding details of any group that pays for promotion. The company said information on all politically-driven ads would be held in the database for seven years, and would also include how many times the ads have been viewed by Facebook users.
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