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Op-Ed: Think Facebook is invincible? Here’s how the social media giant can be held accountable

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Facebook has had a rough month, and deservedly so. The company has earned a special place of distrust in the hearts of many: A CNN poll published Wednesday found that 3 out of 4 U.S. adults say Facebook is making American society worse.

In an October Senate hearing, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen made explosive allegations that the company’s own research documented the harms its site inflicts upon users. In other words, Facebook itself allegedly knew that its business harmed others in concrete and preventable ways, like promoting photo sharing that damages the mental health of young people, especially girls. How has Facebook gotten away with it?

Part of the answer lies with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the controversial federal law that essentially gives websites broad protection against liability for content posted by others. The law shields Facebook from the responsibility and liability of a traditional publisher.

Though a newspaper might be sued for libel over a defamatory article, Section 230 protects online platforms from liability for the content they distribute as long as they did not create it. In effect, Facebook has received a federal subsidy in the form of Section 230, which largely protects it from an important form of societal regulation: lawsuits.

Lawsuits bring issues into a public forum for scrutiny and discussion. In the absence of adequate regulation, the public depends upon private citizens to assert their rights and redress wrongs in court. When companies deploy new technology and business models, legislators and regulators are often slow to react. As a result, the legality of these new practices is often litigated — meaning they get debated by attorneys, reported by the news media and discussed by the public.

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Social media companies have escaped these lawsuits mostly unscathed. For example, Facebook was sued by a victim of sex trafficking who had connected with her abuser through the site. In June the Texas Supreme Court dismissed most of her claims based on Section 230 immunity. In a different case, family members of victims killed by terrorist attacks sued Twitter, Facebook and Google, alleging that these companies provided material support to terrorist organizations. The 9th Circuit ruled (also in June) that most of the claims were barred by Section 230.

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But there are grounds for civil liability lawsuits against Facebook outside the scope of Section 230. While 230 lets social media companies off the hook for harmful content posted by users, Facebook’s internal documents and Haugen’s Senate testimony suggest its business model and products are themselves harmful and addictive.

The “like” button and the endless scrolling feature may have negative consequences for mental and physical health by keeping users glued to their screens, as noted by tech insiders such as Tristan Harris and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya. The company’s product design also rewards misinformation. When Facebook overhauled its algorithm to increase user engagement, it boosted amplification of divisive and provocative content.

Facebook should further be held liable for misleading public statements about the nature of its products. For example, the company’s statements about the mental health benefits of social apps for young people glaringly omit its own internal research showing that Instagram use makes body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teenage girls.

Facebook’s products and what the company says about them should be fair game for product liability lawsuits. People who suffer physical or emotional harm from those products — especially teenagers and young adults who are particularly vulnerable to the site’s features — should be able to sue the company without getting bogged down by Section 230.

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Certainly Section 230 needs to be modified. It is currently written so that courts interpret it too broadly to mean blanket immunity even when the claims against a company are not based on publisher or speaker liability. The law should be updated to clarify that companies are responsible for their business practices and products, a line that could be drawn without upending the important protections for free speech and content moderation that 230 provides.

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But legislative reform won’t happen fast, and accountability for Facebook shouldn’t have to wait. In addition to compensating injured victims, lawsuits serve another purpose — they will compel the famously evasive company to disclose more information on what it knows about its own products.

Nancy Kim is a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology.

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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:

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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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