Facebook exec promises UK lawmakers overhaul for political ads

Alistair Smout, Reuters

Posted at Apr 27 2018 02:36 AM

Protesters from the pressure group Avaaz demonstrate against Facebook outside Portcullis House in Westminster, London, Britain, April 26, 2018. Peter Nicholls, Reuters

LONDON - Facebook will introduce new measures to improve transparency around advertising and politics in Britain, an executive said on Thursday, as he faced criticism from British lawmakers over a data scandal.

Facebook has said 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.

Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer faced a day of questioning from a panel of British lawmakers in London, where he apologized for the firm's failings over data protection and sometimes looked uncomfortable as he was unable or unwilling to answer all their questions.

After the session concluded, the chairman of the committee said that Schroepfer had failed to provide full answers on nearly 40 points, and reiterated a demand for Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg to answer questions from lawmakers.

"Mr Schroepfer, Mark Zuckerberg's right-hand man whom we were assured could represent his views, today failed to answer many specific and detailed questions about Facebook’s business practices," said Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

In a written submission prior to the hearing before parliament's media committee, Schroepfer said those wanting to run political adverts would have to complete an authorization 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 apologized to U.S. 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 U.S. internet companies.


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

Schroepfer said users would be able to view who runs adverts by June and that further measures, including labels for political ads and a searchable archive, would be rolled out before local elections in May 2019.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

However, Schroepfer said that a Canadian firm called AggregateIQ, which did work for the official campaign group Vote Leave, spent $2 million on ads.

He added that "similar people" appeared in the accounts and billing information of AIQ and Cambridge Analytica.

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

When pressed, Schroepfer 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 Collins that it was legally safe for him to do so.