Facebook not sticking to political transparency promises: privacy group

Facebook is not keeping to promises it made to the Tweede Kamer last week about political transparency on the social media platform, according to privacy and civil rights movement Bits of Freedom who put the social media giant's promises to the test, Nieuwsuur reports.

On Wednesday, Facebook policy head Edo Haveman spoke to the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, about measures Facebook took to prevent political influence from other countries. "We have taken radical transparency measures for political advertisements", he said. According to him, Facebook implemented measures throughout 27 EU countries that ensure that you can only advertise politically in the country where you live. Facebook will show who paid for the political advertisements. And the ads will be kept in a searchable library for seven years. "We will roll out these measures worldwide."

Bits of Freedom put these promises to the test. With an old Dutch Facebook account, the organization placed a political meme about German parties CDU and the AfD. Payments were made to have the meme reach German voters in a targeted manner. The political post reached about 2 thousand people in Germany, and a political discussion arose under the post. Bits of Freedom then used a German account to post a message from Dutch party FvD and spread it in the Netherlands. This ad was paid for from a German account.

These ads could be posted very easily, Bits of Freedom said to Nieuwsuur. According to the organization, Facebook is again failing to deliver on their promises. "Facebook has not proven to be a reliable conversation partner. This time they even made promises in the Tweede Kamer. That means MPs were lied to", Evelyn Austin of Bits of Freedom said to Nieuwsuur. "They said: it is now impossible to advertise one country in another, that is not true. There are no barriers to doing that. Despite what Facebook said last week."

"Facebook says that anyone who wants to advertise politics must report. I didn't have to do that. You can also wonder whether parties that want to influence will report. Those are parties that want to continue working under the radar. And Facebook makes that possible", Austin said. Facebook also said it would compare images used in posts with political images they collected in a database, according to Austin. "There are thousands of images in it. And the post that we made contains well-known images that they really should have in that database."

According to PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher, democracy is at risk if people can be manipulated from abroad with advertisements that only target them. "I have already asked the cabinet to prevent this happening in the Netherlands, the cabinet relies on self-regulation, on the fine words of Facebook. They have promised to improve and time after time it turns out that it is worth nothing. Facebook speaks wonderful words and is now a treat to democracy", he said to Nieuwsuur. 

D66 parliamentarian Kees Verhoeven calls on Minister Kasja Ollongren of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations to take action. "As far as I am concerned, the time has come for us to exchange the step of self-regulation and trust in the promises of companies for legislation. And the Minister can definitely play an important role in that, so I call her to take action and she must know for herself how to do that. But that something must be done now - more than trusting in the promise of Facebook - that seems clear to me."

Facebook said in a reaction to Nieuwsuur that it is good that Bits of Freedom drew their attention to these problems. "It gives us the opportunity to optimize Facebook's new measures, which aim to protect the integrity of elections in the Netherlands and abroad. As we emphasized in our announcement of these measures: we will not be able to prevent abuse completely. We are dealing with smart, creative and well-funded opponents who change their tactics as soon as we discover abuse. But we are convinced that these measures will help prevent interference with elections on Facebook in the future; and that's why they are so important."