News | Published February 07 2020

Data ethics body: Adverts should be archived for accountability

According to a report from the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, online companies should be compelled to create accessible archives for “high risk” targeted adverts.

By archiving adverts in this way, the public could study records of previous campaigns, ensuring they do not disappear after they become inactive. This would help to ensure accountability and would also allow users to understand the types of targeted adverts that they see.

The report recommended that political adverts, alongside adverts for housing, credit, jobs and age-restricted products, should be archived.

The power of political adverts on social media was put under the spotlight following December’s general election. According to a report from The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, “at least” 31 campaigns from across the party spectrum were judged to be “indecent, dishonest or untruthful.”

On December 6, First Draft, a non-profit organisation which aims to tackle misinformation, reported that in the first four days of December, 88 per cent of the Conservative’s most widely-promoted ads featured claims which had been flagged as “not correct or not entirely correct.” Over the same time period, seven per cent of Labour’s published ads contained inaccurate claims.

Responding to these claims of inaccuracy, the report argued: "It is essential that political advertising content is available for public scrutiny to enable the media and civil society to hold online claims to the same standard as in traditional political communications."

The CDEI’s report forms part of efforts to control the power media platforms have over user's data and the ways in which they use it.

In April of last year, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport proposed an independent watchdog to write a “code of practice” for tech companies and ensure internet sites are responsible for “online harms.”

The report recommended that this new regulator should have power to audit online businesses to study how they are using user data and compel online companies to allow access for independent researchers to conduct “research of significant potential importance to public policy”.

Both Facebook and Google have built tools which allow users to browse a library of ads which political groups have used to advertise to voters. On Facebook’s tool, they archive ads, showing the content, the duration of the advert and the group it targeted. The target group is identified by two key characteristics: age and gender.

Google’s tool documents all the advertising links which are hosted at the top of search results. 

While the tool documents the total spend by various groups, and the rough cost and impression count of each ad, the ranges are extremely wide. For instance, for a Conservative Party advert which linked to their manifesto, the stated cost ranges from “£500 to £25,000.” The archive, at the time of writing, did not include data about the groups targeted.

Indeed, the CDEI's report states that these tools have been "criticised for providing insufficient information about how adverts are targeted and, in the case of less well known campaign groups, who paid for them."

If the report’s recommendations were adopted, non-political ads would also be archived in the same way. For instance, users would be able to see the demographics targeted for adverts for pay-day loans.

Describing the reasons behind their recommendations, the CDEI said: “We have reviewed the powers of existing regulators and conclude that enforcement of existing legislation and self-regulation cannot be relied on to meet public expectations of greater accountability.”

A spokesperson for the Internet Advertising Bureau responded by saying “We welcome the CDEI’s recognition that online targeting is an important driver of economic value and a core element of many business models." 

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Authored by

George Salmon
Political Editor
February 07 2020

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