If Facebook’s leaders were willing to level with us, they would stop defending themselves by appealing to lofty values like free speech. They would focus instead on more practical realities: Facebook is incapable of vetting political ads effectively and consistently at the global scale. And political ads are essential to maintaining the company’s presence in countries around the world….
Might Facebook ban political ads altogether, like Twitter has? Mr. Zuckerberg could concede that it’s not an easy task. What’s not political? If an ad calling for a carbon tax is political, is an ad promoting the reputation of an oil company political? In an effort to provide transparency to political ads in the United States, Facebook has already shown how bad it is at distinguishing between political accounts and apolitical accounts, often mislabeling news outlets, think tanks and university departments as political entities. Those are the false positives we know of. We have no idea how many false negatives Facebook has let slip through….
We should know better than to demand of Facebook’s leaders that they do what is not in the best interests of the company. Instead, citizens around the world should demand effective legislation that can curb Facebook’s power.
The key is to limit data collection and the use of personal data to ferry ads and other content to discrete segments of Facebook users — the very core of the Facebook business model.
This task would be easier in some countries than others. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution severely limits policy options in America. But here’s something Congress could do: restrict the targeting of political ads in any medium to the level of the electoral district of the race. Tailoring messages for African-American voters, men or gun enthusiasts would still be legal, as this rule would not govern content. But people not in those groups would see those tailored messages as well and could learn more about their candidates. This law would apply not just to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but also to all targeted ads delivered via cable boxes or devices.
I’m not as confident that such a law would survive First Amendment challenge.