Mozilla and its allies want Facebook and Google to place a moratorium a temporary ban on all political and issue ads in the UK, until the general elections are concluded on December 12. In an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and head of policy and communications, Nick Clegg, and to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and head of global affairs and chief legal officer, Kent Walker, Mozilla said that disinformation thrives online before elections, and both Google and Facebook’s ad transparency tools are flawed.

‘The UK has no time,’ says Mozilla

The letter’s signatories which include top executives from Mozilla, Demos, Doteeveryone, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, World Wide Web Foundation  recognise that companies’ call for regulation is promising, and that political ads have got the attention of UK and European Commission lawmakers. But with the elections only six weeks away, there is no time for regulation to catch up, or for these issues to be resolved anytime soon. “These issues will take time to resolve, but in the UK we do not have time,” it says.

“We are aware that these policies are subject to debate both inside and outside the company. While that debate continues, people in the UK are left in uncertainty about whether they can trust what they see on the platform.”

The letter criticises Facebook for allowing politicians to lie in political ads. It also reminds Google and Facebook of the European Commission’s recent statement that platforms could do better in dealing with disinformation. This Commission’s statement came as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, Twitter and 7 European trade associations submitted their first self-assessment reports under the Code of Practice on Disinformation, which they had signed in October 2018. The code aims to fight online disinformation, and includes prescribed actions against accounts spreading disinformation, increasing transparency, addressing fake accounts and bots, among others.

In its statement reviewing the companies’ self-assessment report, the EU said that that the May 2019 elections — during which the Code was in force — “were clearly not free from disinformation” and warned social media companies of regulation, if they did not take serious further steps to deal with political ads. Even while agreeing that the signatories’ work did bear some results in limiting disinformation, the Commission stated that “large-scale automated propaganda and disinformation persist and there is more work to be done under all areas of the Code. We cannot accept this as a new normal”.

Political ads not inherently problematic, but opaque targeting is

Mozilla notes that political ads are not inherently problematic and blocking them isn’t a long-term solution. But the UK has outdated electoral laws, data protections laws aren’t implemented, and platforms have failed to address concerns. Additionally, the lack of transparency about the data used for targeting political ads, and how targeting is done is concerning:

“But the online advertising model, which depends on vast collection of data and opaque ad targeting systems is not fit for purpose and thus fundamentally undermines trust in political advertising. It is a request to take temporary measures to ensure that your platforms are not complicit in exploiting electoral laws MPs themselves have described as ‘unfit for purpose’.” [emphasis ours]

Mozilla and its allies also point out precedent: Google blocked all ads two weeks before the Irish referendum on abortion rights, and the outright block on political ads during the Israeli and Canadian elections. A few days after Facebook allowed politicians to lie in political ads, Twitter banned all political and issue ads, saying that the reach of such messages “should be earned, not bought”.

Mozilla has been critical of Facebook’s political ads transparency tools. It has been studying Facebook’s ad library archive for over a year, and has been and “assessing its ability to provide researchers and others with meaningful information”. It has found that Facebook’s ad transparency API was “woefully ineffective”, and uncovered bugs and shortcomings “that rendered the API nearly useless”. Even after Facebook made minor changes to the API’s functionality, Mozilla said “the tool to be fundamentally flawed for its intended purpose of providing transparency and a data source for rigorous research.”