European Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova speaks during a plenary session at … [+]
Yves Herman, Pool/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Lisbon, Portugal—Revelations from tech whistle-blowers help illustrate the need for regulating political advertising, according to a top European lawmaker.
Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency, said the documents recently disclosed by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen back up new rules that European lawmakers are drafting for how to regulate political advertising. While Jourová said the documents—which have become known as the Facebook Papers—didn’t reveal anything she didn’t already know, she thinks seeing how companies deal with misinformation and other issues internally help to illustrate the broader problems.
“If it weren’t for whistle-blowers or the scandals like Cambridge Analytica, we as the regulators would not be able to convince the people that the regulation is needed,” Jourová told journalists today at the Web Summit tech conference.
The comments come as Facebook faces ongoing criticism about how the social network and its employees have discussed and dealt with a variety of sensitive and controversial topics, including political advertising and misinformation. The documents were provided by Haugen to the European Commission, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and also to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions received by Congress also were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including Forbes.
In one document from October 2020, Facebook employees outlined research about how targeted political content “can potentially harm people by narrowly delivering divisive appeals to vulnerable audiences; inciting violence; intimidating, discouraging or misleading voters; creating echo chambers; and decreasing accountability for politicians.”
Later this month, Jourová plans to unveil a proposal for regulating online political advertising, which she said would force companies like Facebook and others “to disclose the algorithms and to invite us into their kitchen where they are cooking their food, their meal.”
From Jourová’s perspective, regulators need to do make companies more responsible while also empowering consumers to have more control over digital experiences. That’s why she wants to change Europe’s political advertising laws to regulate the “entire production chain of advertising,” expanding beyond giants like Facebook and to other parts of advertising technology.
Tech giants and other companies should disclose why someone is seeing an ad, who paid for it and what data was used to target them, according to Jourová. She added that sensitive information such as race, sexual orientation and religion should not be allowed for use in political ad-targeting. Citing a recent survey, Jourová said nearly four in ten Europeans reported being exposed to content where they couldn’t determine whether it was a political ad or not.
“If we want to be sure that people are free to choose, we need to make sure the information they see online is not fueled by obscure functioning of platforms, algorithmic systems and an army of undetected bots,” Jourová said.
On Monday night, Haugen herself took the main stage at Web Summit in her first public appearance since she came forth as a whistle-blower last month. She said Facebook’s reliance on ranking content based on the level of engagement it gets is “dangerous because right now the most extreme content wins out.”
Facebook has disputed the recent allegations and described the documents as being cherry-picked. However, Haugen challenged Facebook to release additional documents if the company wants to defend itself.
“Bad people and bad ideas are not the problem,” Haugen said. “It’s about who gets the largest megaphones.”