Statement on disallowing microtargeting of political ads

By Ashley Boyd | November 8, 2019 | Advocacy

Yesterday, news broke that Facebook and Google are considering changing their policies regarding microtargeting of political ads. The news comes on the heels of numerous calls for a prohibition on political microtargeting including from Ellen Weintraub, chair of the U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC), and from Facebook’s own employees. We, too, believe that prohibiting political microtargeting would be a powerful step forward in response to the ongoing challenges of disinformation and manipulation online, and we hope both Facebook and Google, in particular YouTube, consider broad changes to their policy, rather than limiting their restrictions solely to ads run by candidates for office.

With campaigning for next year’s U.S. presidential election well underway, time is of the essence, particularly since evidence indicates that rampant misinformation – spread in part through online political advertisements – affected the 2016 elections.

Political speech is critical to democratic discourse, but against the very real circumstances of organized disinformation and organic misinformation today, microtargeting keeps ideas from being debated in the open, and fiction parades as fact.

Online platforms can take the important step toward quelling the manipulation by limiting political ads to a scale where they facilitate a public discourse. For example, Google and Facebook should explore, in addition to limits on racial and demographic targeting, limits on interest and behavior microtargeting (see here and here for examples) that can similarly be used to carve up and manipulate the electorate.

Crucially, the implementation of such a policy should include at its core input from civil society groups, technologists, researchers, political scientists and others who understand the profound impact that paid political ads have on democracies around the world.

Banning microtargeting is by no means a panacea, but Mozilla is joining the growing movement in support for a ban on microtargeting in online political ads in an effort to bring politicking into a forum that can be seen and debated by the public.



Background
Mozilla is a global organization committed to an internet that elevates critical thinking, reasoned argument, shared knowledge and verifiable facts. For the past two years, Mozilla has fought for this commitment in the European Union, (1) by participating in the high-level expert group on disinformation in Brussels; (2) by signing the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation and (3) by launching public advocacy campaigns to pressure relevant online platforms to stand by their commitments. Together with independent researchers we detailed the key traits that make for an effective ad archive API, and we called out companies when their political ad archives didn’t live up to those expectations.

The UK is in a unique situation of having parliamentary elections scheduled for next month. We believe there is simply not enough time to get any political ads regime right in such a short amount of time, and hence we called for an immediate moratorium on all political and issue-based advertising until the conclusion of the UK Parliamentary Elections on the 12th of December.