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Facebook Australia row: A dose of realism on tech regulation

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Amol Rajan

Media editor

@amolrajanon Twitter

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionFacebook has blocked all news content to Australians

The enormous beef between Australia’s government and Facebook has persuaded a lot of people that we are entering a new era of technology regulation.

In policy and news conferences from Palo Alto to Perth, mostly conducted on Zoom of course, heavy chat about regulation and chin-stroking reliably go together. But as is often the way with complex areas of policy, the word “regulation” has now been so used and abused as to have lost all precision in meaning.

A dose of accuracy, and realism, is overdue.

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There are countless types of regulation, whether social or economic, most of them yet to be invented. Different countries have radically different approaches to regulation. The types of company being regulated vary hugely. And regulation, whatever form it takes, is likely to have consequences that are both slow and unforeseeable.

To Australia first. The consistent negative publicity and coverage of Facebook in recent years has coloured the debate to such an extent that Facebook’s argument has been somewhat lost in the coverage that I’ve seen. It’s important to re-assert this, not to defend Facebook, but because there is a principle at stake that goes to the heart of what the web is: which is why, by the way, Tim Berners-Lee, who invented it, has defended the company’s position.

Australia’s initial view was that companies such as Facebook should pay for links. This is a very big deal. The free, open web that we have today is based on the principle that you don’t have to pay for links. Start paying for links, and you move to a very different web. This is what Berners-Lee said to Australian legislators.

Moreover, it’s not just any links, but links pertaining to a particular category of web material: edited information – that is, news. But what counts as news, and why privilege this one category of material?

On the first question, does tabloid journalism count as news? What about a community blogger who posts magistrates’ updates? Ok, how about a magazine that focuses on fishing – but does a news round-up in its opening pages? Should they be paid by Facebook?

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On the second question, the short, shallow answer is: Rupert Murdoch. He arguably wields more influence in the land of his birth than he does in the US or Britain. A longer, better answer may come via metaphor.

image copyrightReuters

image captionThe ABC News Facebook page was affected by Facebook’s action

Think of a car maker – say, Volvo. Cars are about getting from A to B, but to make the journey more pleasant, they also have radios. Radio stations choose to go out on frequencies transmitted through car radios. So Magic FM chooses to be in car radios, because it derives value from it: building an audience that they can sell advertising against.

Sure, Volvo derives some benefit from Magic FM; but if Magic FM didn’t play in a Volvo, you’d probably still buy it. Nobody ever said, “Sure, I’ll buy this Volvo – but only if you guarantee I can get Magic FM”.

There is a limit to this analogy, which we’ll get to; but the Australian law is a bit like asking Volvo to pay Magic FM each time that radio network plays out in a Volvo car. We don’t ask car makers to pay radio networks. Why ask tech platforms to pay for news – when news is only around 4% of all the content on Facebook (most of which is groups arranging to walk their dogs, or pictures of babies, etc)? After all, publishers choose to be on Facebook, because like Magic FM in cars, they derive value from it.

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The answer – and this is where the analogy, while instructive, falls – is that our public information system, the media, is too precious and too damaged for the normal rules to apply.

And Facebook has definitely contributed to that damage, by spreading lies and misinformation; and arguably contributed to it by vacuuming up so much digital advertising. Moreover, Volvo is one of many car makers who have a comparable share of the market; whereas when it comes to advertising, most of which is online these days, Facebook and Google have around 60% globally.

So will other countries follow?

Even then, those who make the case for the original Australian proposals have to justify privileging news, define what news is, and accept that they want the current freedom and openness of the web to be compromised.

One person ostensibly willing to do all those things is Dr Andrea Coscelli, the Italian economist who is head of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. In an interview with me this week, Coscelli made clear his sympathy for the Australian proposals, which he called “sensible”. On the point that paying for links changes the fundamental nature of the web, he said he was relaxed about that; the web has changed before, and will change again.

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media captionThe Competition and Markets Authority would like regulatory changes to deal with the ‘imbalance of power’

I was very struck by the clarity of his answers when asked about Google and Facebook specifically. Do they constitute a “duopoly”, I asked? “Yes.” Is Google’s 90% share of the search advertising market too big, I asked? “Yes.” And what about Facebook’s more than 50% share of the display advertising market in the UK. Too big? “Yes”.

It is unusual to hear such definitive answers from a regulator. While Dr Coscelli was also full of praise for the tech giants, which he made clear are brilliant companies, his forthright take makes clear that Australia has set a noisy precedent. The onus is now on regulators and legislators everywhere to answer the question: well, Australia have done it, so why haven’t we?

And yet it might not make much of a difference, at least for a while. The sheer dominance of Facebook and Google was laid bare by the precipitous drop in traffic to publishers in Australia, when Facebook briefly pulled the plug last week (see graph below). It fell off a cliff, showing that many businesses have built their futures on the fickle friendship of Mark Zuckerberg – something I have been warning media companies against for years.

image copyrightChartbeat/BBC

image captionFacebook’s blocking of Australian publications had a drastic effect on traffic to the online sites

I also detect a lot of wishful thinking among those who believe the Australian proposals will seriously alter the balance of power in our public domain. Obviously that’s not a reason to hold back reforms; indeed it may be a reason to accelerate them. But it will be a long time before the dominance of Google and Facebook is chipped away, let alone defeated.

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Why? Because of the nature of data.

And then what?

For a while now I have tried to debunk the platitude that data is the new oil, alas with no success. I won’t repeat the arguments here, except to say it is still in common parlance to argue that just as Teddy Roosevelt and his allies broke up an oil-igarchy a century ago, so a new generation of trust-busters could do the same to the world’s first hoodie-wearing oligarchy, which we have today.

But the oil barons ran national companies which were confronted by national politicians, whereas the data kings are global beasts. And aside from the myriad, essential ways data and oil differ, Dr Coscelli was clear in our interview that the nature of data is such that those who have it gain an exponential advantage over others. With a bit of data you can often get more, basically; whereas oil is finite. And so, over the past 15 years, Google and Facebook have developed astonishingly detailed profiles on half of humanity. They know a lot about you, me, our families, and the Smiths at No 72.

A lot of people pay a lot of money for these profiles. This is sometimes called surveillance capitalism.

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Those 15 years have given Facebook and Google a monumental incumbency advantage. It will take a very, very long time for any new entrant to get even close to competing. As things stand, one of the closest competitors to Google is Bing, Microsoft’s search tool. Microsoft is richer than both Google and Facebook. The idea that, with more regulation, some plucky upstart from a garage in Grimsby could knock the duopoly off their perch is deluded.

Again, this may strengthen the case for more regulation, not weaken it. It’s vital, however, to be realistic and hard-headed: not just about what regulation means in different places, but what it might actually achieve, and by when.

If you’re interested in issues such as these, you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram; and subscribe to The Media Show podcast from BBC Radio 4.

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Updating Special Ad Audiences for housing, employment, and credit advertisers

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On June 21, 2022 we announced an important settlement with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that will change the way we deliver housing ads to people residing in the US. Specifically, we are building into our ads system a method designed to make sure the audience that ends up seeing a housing ad more closely reflects the eligible targeted audience for that ad.

As part of this agreement, we will also be sunsetting Special Ad Audiences, a tool that lets advertisers expand their audiences for ad sets related to housing. We are choosing to sunset this for employment and credit ads as well. In 2019, in addition to eliminating certain targeting options for housing, employment and credit ads, we introduced Special Ad Audiences as an alternative to Lookalike Audiences. But the field of fairness in machine learning is a dynamic and evolving one, and Special Ad Audiences was an early way to address concerns. Now, our focus will move to new approaches to improve fairness, including the method previously announced.

What’s happening: We’re removing the ability to create Special Ad Audiences via Ads Manager beginning on August 25, 2022.

Beginning October 12th, 2022, we will pause any remaining ad sets that contain Special Ad Audiences. These ad sets may be restarted once advertisers have removed any and all Special Ad Audiences from those ad sets. We are providing a two month window between preventing new Special Ad Audiences and pausing existing Special Ad Audiences to enable advertisers the time to adjust budgets and strategies as needed.

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For more details, please visit our Newsroom post.

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Impact to Advertisers using Marketing API on September 13, 2022

For advertisers and partners using the API listed below, the blocking of new Special Ad Audience creation will present a breaking change on all versions. Beginning August 15, 2022, developers can start to implement the code changes, and will have until September 13, 2022, when the non-versioning change occurs and prior values are deprecated. Refer below to the list of impacted endpoints related to this deprecation:

For reading audience:

  • endpoint gr:get:AdAccount/customaudiences
  • field operation_status

For adset creation:

  • endpoint gr:post:AdAccount/adsets
  • field subtype

For adset editing:

  • endpoint gr:post:AdCampaign
  • field subtype

For custom audience creation:

  • endpoint gr:post:AdAccount/customaudiences
  • field subtype

For custom audience editing:

  • endpoint gr:post:CustomAudience

Please refer to the developer documentation for further details to support code implementation.

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Introducing an Update to the Data Protection Assessment

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Over the coming year, some apps with access to certain types of user data on our platforms will be required to complete the annual Data Protection Assessment. We have made a number of improvements to this process since our launch last year, when we introduced our first iteration of the assessment.

The updated Data Protection Assessment will include a new developer experience that is enhanced through streamlined communications, direct support, and clear status updates. Today, we’re sharing what you can expect from these new updates and how you can best prepare for completing this important privacy requirement if your app is within scope.

If your app is in scope for the Data Protection Assessment, and you’re an app admin, you’ll receive an email and a message in your app’s Alert Inbox when it’s time to complete the annual assessment. You and your team of experts will then have 60 calendar days to complete the assessment. We’ve built a new platform that enhances the user experience of completing the Data Protection Assessment. These updates to the platform are based on learnings over the past year from our partnership with the developer community. When completing the assessment, you can expect:

  • Streamlined communication: All communications and required actions will be through the My Apps page. You’ll be notified of pending communications requiring your response via your Alerts Inbox, email, and notifications in the My Apps page.

    Note: Other programs may still communicate with you through the App Contact Email.

  • Available support: Ability to engage with Meta teams via the Support tool to seek clarification on the questions within the Data Protection Assessment prior to submission and help with any requests for more info, or to resolve violations.

    Note: To access this feature, you will need to add the app and app admins to your Business Manager. Please refer to those links for step-by-step guides.

  • Clear status updates: Easy to understand status and timeline indicators throughout the process in the App Dashboard, App Settings, and My Apps page.
  • Straightforward reviewer follow-ups: Streamlined experience for any follow-ups from our reviewers, all via developers.facebook.com.

We’ve included a brief video that provides a walkthrough of the experience you’ll have with the Data Protection Assessment:

Something Went Wrong

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The Data Protection Assessment elevates the importance of data security and helps gain the trust of the billions of people who use our products and services around the world. That’s why we are committed to providing a seamless experience for our partners as you complete this important privacy requirement.

Here is what you can do now to prepare for the assessment:

  1. Make sure you are reachable: Update your developer or business account contact email and notification settings.
  2. Review the questions in the Data Protection Assessment and engage with your teams on how best to answer these questions. You may have to enlist the help of your legal and information security points of contact to answer some parts of the assessment.
  3. Review Meta Platform Terms and our Developer Policies.

We know that when people choose to share their data, we’re able to work with the developer community to safely deliver rich and relevant experiences that create value for people and businesses. It’s a privilege we share when people grant us access to their data, and it’s imperative that we protect that data in order to maintain and build upon their trust. This is why the Data Protection Assessment focuses on data use, data sharing and data security.

Data privacy is challenging and complex, and we’re dedicated to continuously improving the processes to safeguard user privacy on our platform. Thank you for partnering with us as we continue to build a safer, more sustainable platform.

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Resources for Completing App Store Data Practice Questionnaires for Apps That Include the Facebook or Audience Network SDK

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Resources for Completing App Store Data Practice Questionnaires for Apps That Include the Facebook or Audience Network SDK

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