Mozilla COO contacts European Commission voicing concerns about Facebook's lack of ad transparency

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Facebook has been no stranger to controversy and scandal over the years, but things have been particularly bad over the last twelve months. The latest troubles find Mozilla complaining to the European Commission about the social network's lack of transparency, particularly when it comes to political advertising.

Mozilla's Chief Operating Officer, Denelle Dixon, has penned a missive to Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society. She bemoans the fact that Facebook makes it impossible to conduct analysis of ads, and this in turn prevents Mozilla from offering full transparency to European citizens -- something it sees as important in light of the impending EU elections.

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Dixon calls on the Commission to raise its concerns with Facebook, and to put pressure on the social network to make it Ad Archive API publicly available. Mozilla believes that the inability to conduct analysis of ads "prevents any developer, researcher, or organization to develop tools, critical insights, and research designed to educate and empower users to understand and therefore resist targeted disinformation campaigns".

The letter is written as both Mozilla and the European Commission try to battle fake news and misinformation online. Dixon writes:

Mozilla is working to launch a Firefox Election package for the EU Parliament Elections and is exploring options for add-ons, tools, and information that would be most useful to include.  However, we have determined that we will be unable to deliver the transparency we hoped to EU residents. This is due to challenges we have encountered with our Ad Analysis for Facebook add-on, which we had planned to promote ahead of the elections.

The Ad Analysis for Facebook addon has two key features. First, the addon analyzes the user's Facebook feed in order to identify what ads the user is seeing and identify how the user is being targeted. This information is collected on the user's device over time. The information is then shown to users in a way that helps them understand who, in aggregate, is trying to influence them politically and what information is being used to target political ads. Second, the information is also compared to publicly available data sources, in order to show how the ads users are seeing might differ from the ads seen by friends, neighbors, and other citizens.

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.

She goes on to complain:

In addition, 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. We therefore cannot deliver the second key piece of functionality described above. This is in part because Facebook has yet to fulfil its commitments under the Political advertising and issue-based advertising section of the Code to enable public disclosure of political advertising.

In calling for the API to be made public, Dixon says that "transparency cannot just be on the terms with which the world’s largest, most powerful tech companies are most comfortable".

While Mozilla has been in talks with Facebook about the matter, Dixon makes it clear that it has been "unable to identify a path towards meaningful public disclosure of the data needed", hence calling on the Commission for help.

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