Facebook to clearly label political advertising in Britain

British lawmakers have questioned Facebook's chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer over the firm's role in a recent data scandal.

Facebook's Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer answering questions before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee at Parliament in London on April 26, 2018.
Facebook's Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer answering questions before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee at Parliament in London on April 26, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Facebook will introduce new measures to improve transparency around adverts in Britain by June this year and require political ads to be clearly labelled, the firm's Chief Technology Officer told a parliamentary committee.

In a written submission to the British parliament's media committee, Mike Schroepfer said those wanting to run political adverts would have to complete an authorisation process and the messages would also have to display who paid for them.

"I want to start by echoing our CEO, Mark Zuckerberg: what happened with Cambridge Analytica represents a breach of trust, and we are deeply sorry. We made mistakes and we are taking steps to make sure it doesn't happen again," Schroepfer wrote.

Earlier this month, Zuckerberg apologised to US senators for issues that have beset Facebook, including shortcomings with data protection.

But the 33-year-old internet mogul managed to deflect calls for any specific promises to support possible congressional regulation of the world's largest social media network and other US internet companies.

Schroepfer was filling in for Zuckerberg in front of British lawmakers on Thursday after the Facebook chief declined to appear himself, a decision the parliamentary committee chairman had described as astonishing.

Facebook has said that the personal information of about 87 million users might have been improperly shared with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which worked on Donald Trump's 2016 presidential election campaign.

British lawmakers have also raised concern over the use of social media in Britain's referendum vote in 2016 to leave the European Union.

Schroepfer said it was clear Facebook had not done enough to ensure its tools could "potentially being used for harm" or take a broad enough view of its responsibility.

SMALL SUMS OF MONEY 

Schroepfer told the committee his company would crack down on manipulative political advertising techniques ahead of local elections in Britain in May 2019.

Steps would include vetting who paid for political ads and allowing users to view all advertising from different campaigns, not just ones targeted at them in their own news feed.

He denied that any shortcomings in Facebook approach to political adverts before now had been due to commercial reasons. 

“This is not an issue of revenue for us,” he said.“Political advertising is a very small, low single-digit percentage of our overall advertising, so the decisions here have nothing to do with money or revenue.”

British lawmakers have also raised concern over the use of social media in Britain’s referendum vote in 2016 to leave the European Union.  Schroeder said it was clear Facebook had not done enough to ensure its tools could “potentially being used for harm” or take a broad enough view of its responsibility. 

As many as one million British Facebook users may have had their data harvested because they were connected to US users targeted in data passed to Cambridge Analytica, Schroepfer said.

Facebook attracts 40 million monthly active users in Britain, he wrote, representing about 60 per cent of the entire population.

But there was no evidence of Cambridge Analytical managing referendum-related ads or pages, Schroeder said, or spending money on the campaigns. 

“Facebook confirms to parliament that Cambridge Analytical spent no money on ads on their platform for the EU referendum. This is hardly surprising: Cambridge Analytical didn’t work on the referendum,” Cambridge Analytical said in a tweet. 

Cambridge Analytical has said it pitched to the Leave EU campaign group for work, but that no work was undertaken. 

However, Schroeder said that a Canadian firm called Aggregate, which did work for the official campaign group Vote Leave, spent US$2 million on ads.  He added that “similar people” appeared in the accounts and billing information of Aggregate and Cambridge Analytical. 

Cambridge Analytical has said it was not involved in AIG’s work for Vote Leave, while AI has said it never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytical and has never been part of the firm. 

When pressed, Schroeder often declined to give details about what had happened, citing ongoing investigations by Britain’s Information Commissioner and Electoral Commission, despite repeated reassurances by committee chair Damian Collins that it was legally safe for him to do so.