State task force questions Silicon Valley tech companies about political ads
Google headquarters in Mountain View.

As politics and big tech increasingly collide, a new state task force is examining whether more regulation is needed to increase accountability for Silicon Valley companies who run digital political advertising.

The Digital Transparency Task Force, a division within California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, recently questioned representatives from Google and Facebook about their political advertising processes.

Alea Mitchell, an associate product counsel for Google, told members Google Ads is a self-service ad platform. Advertisers set up their own budget and goals, she said, and place bids depending on when and where they want their advertisements to appear.

Mitchell said the company strives to block or remove hateful content.

“We actually have a specific policy against the use and monetization of things like hate terms and hate speech,” she said. “That would be a violation of our actual written terms and policies on our site.”

Google only allows certain criteria, like age, gender or geography, to be used to target election ads, according to Mitchell. Other types of targeting, like customer match, are prohibited.

Mitchell added advertisers who want to run election ads in the United States must provide verification. Google then shares some of this information with viewers in paid-for-by ad disclosures.

Jennifer Waggoner, a task force member, inquired about Google’s complaint process.

Mitchell said the public can report ads they believe are inappropriate. Google has a team that looks into each complaint and examines whether the advertisement in question violates any of the company’s policies.

“When you have a contentious political atmosphere it comes up quite often, so we do have a team that is very responsive and does look into every complaint that we get,” she said. “I can’t speak for advertisers, but I believe the process is actually fairly painless.”

Sarah Schiff, a representative for Facebook, said the social media giant believes all advertisements should be civil and non-discriminatory.

Facebook reviews millions of ads each week through a combination of human and automated processes, she explained. If an ad is approved, the company then works to determine who should view it by matching ads to viewers who would likely consider the content relevant.

 

For transparency purposes, Schiff said Facebook maintains an ad library so the public can review active or inactive political ads from the last seven years.

Task force member Katie Zoglin asked what targeting criteria was permitted for political advertisements.

Advertisers are only eligible to run political ads in a country where they have completed the authorization process, Schiff said. But political advertisers otherwise have the same access to Facebook’s targeting features as any other advertiser.

“Political ads are a vital part of the democratic process,” she said. “Targeting practices are especially important for smaller campaigns and organizations to achieve efficiency since they cannot afford to use bigger, more expensive media like radio or television.”

Abby Wood, another task force member, said she believed Facebook had a “long way” to go.

“The problem is you aren’t disclosing the targeting criteria so we can’t see who people are targeting and that’s really valuable information,” she said.

Schiff explained Facebook would not increase transparency at the expense of users’ privacy.

If the company provides information about who an ad targeted and which users engaged with the advertisement, Schiff said it could end up disclosing information that users wanted to be private.

As a Facebook user, Richard Miadich — the task force’s chair — said he appreciated the company’s concern for user privacy. But Miadich said he would not personally expect his interactions with a political advertisement on Facebook to be considered a private matter.

Wood suggested including a disclaimer to warn users that interactions with political ads could be recorded. Schiff said she would relay that idea back to the Facebook team.

The Fair Political Practices Commission is an independent and nonpartisan group that works to administer the Political Reform Act. The commission strives to promote governmental transparency and to strengthen public trust in the political system.

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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