Facebook’s new authorization process for political ads goes live in the U.S.

Earlier this month – and before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress – the company announced a series of changes to how it would handle political advertisements running on its platform in the future. It had said that people who wanted to buy a political ad – including ads about political “issues” –  would have to reveal their identities and location and be verified, before the ads could run. Information about the advertiser would also display to Facebook users.

Today, Facebook is announcing the authorization process for U.S. political ads is live.

Facebook had first said in October that political advertisers would have to verify their identity and location for election-related ads. But in April, it expanded that requirement to include any “issue ads” – meaning those on political topics being debated across the country, not just those tied to an election.

Facebook said it would work with third parties to identify the issues. These ads would then also be labeled as “Political Ads,” and display the “paid for by” information to end users.

According to today’s announcement, Facebook will now begin to verify the identity and the residential mailing address of advertisers who want to run political ads. Those advertisers will also have to disclose who’s paying for the ads as part of this authorization process.

This verification process is currently only open in the U.S. and will require Page admins and ad account admins submit their government-issued ID to Facebook along with their residential mailing address.

The government ID can either be a U.S. passport or U.S. driver’s license, a FAQ explains. Facebook will also ask for the last four digits of admins’ Social Security Number. The photo ID will then be approved or denied in a matter of minutes, though anyone declined based on the quality of the uploaded images won’t be prevented from trying again.

The address, however, will be verified by mailing a letter with a unique access code that only the admin’s Facebook account can use. The letter may take up to 10 days to arrive, Facebook notes.

Along with the verification portion, Page admins will also have to fill in who paid for the ad in the “disclaimer” section. This has to include the organization(s) or person’s name(s) who funded it.

This information will also be reviewed prior to approval, but Facebook didn’t detail that process in the related FAQ.

Instead, the company simply says: “We’ll review each disclaimer to make sure it adheres to our advertising policies. You can edit your disclaimers at any time, but after each edit, your disclaimer will need to be reviewed again, so it won’t be immediately available to use.”

Along with the launch of the new authorization procedures, Facebook has released a Blueprint training course to guide advertisers through the steps required, and has published an FAQ to answer advertisers’ questions.

Of course, these procedures which will only net the more scrupulous advertisers willing to play by the rules. That’s why Facebook had said before that it plans to use A.I. technology to help sniff out those advertisers who should have submitted to verification, but did not. The company is also asking people to report suspicious ads using the “Report Ad” button.

Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny because of how its platform was corrupted by Russian trolls on a mission to sway the 2016 election. The Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies with election interference earlier this year, and Facebook has removed hundreds of accounts associated with disinformation campaigns.

While tougher rules around ads may help, they alone won’t solve the problem.

It’s likely that those determined to skirt the rules will find their own workarounds. Plus, ads are only one of many issues in terms of those who want to use Facebook for propaganda and misinformation. On other fronts, Facebook is dealing with fake news – including everything from biased stories to those that are outright lies, intending to influence public opinion. And of course there’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which led to intense questioning of Facebook’s data privacy practices in the wake of revelations that millions of Facebook users had their information improperly accessed.

Facebook says the political ads authorization process is gradually rolling out, so it may not be available to all advertisers at this time. Currently, users can only set up and manage authorizations from a desktop computer from the Authorizations tab in a Facebook Page’s Settings.

German Supreme Court dismisses Axel Springer lawsuit, says ad blocking is legal

Germany’s Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit yesterday from Axel Springer against Eyeo, the company behind AdBlock Plus.

The European publishing giant (which acquired Business Insider in 2015) argued that ad-blocking, as well as the business model where advertisers pay to be added to circumvent the white list, violated Germany’s competition law. Axel Springer won a partial victory in 2016, when a lower court ruled that it shouldn’t have to pay for white listing.

However, the Supreme Court has now overturned that decision. In the process, it declared that ad-blocking and Eyeo’s white list are both legal. (German speakers can read the court’s press release.)

After the ruling, Eyeo sent me the following statement from Ben Williams, its head of operations and communications:

Today, we are extremely pleased with the ruling from Germany’s Supreme Court in favor of Adblock Plus/eyeo and against the German media publishing company Axel Springer. This ruling confirms — just as the regional courts in Munich and Hamburg stated previously — that people have the right in Germany to block ads. This case had already been tried in the Cologne Regional Court, then in the Regional Court of Appeals, also in Cologne — with similar results. It also confirms that Adblock Plus can use a whitelist to allow certain acceptable ads through. Today’s Supreme Court decision puts an end to Axel Springer’s claim that they be treated differently for the whitelisting portion of Adblock Plus’ business model.

Axel Springer, meanwhile, described ad-blocking as “an attack on the heart of the free media” and said it would appeal to the country’s Constitutional Court.

YouTube ads for hundreds of brands still running on extremist and white nationalist channels

It’s been more than a year since YouTube promised to improve controls over what content advertisers would find their ads in front of; eight months since it promised to demonetize “hateful” videos; two months since it said it would downgrade offensive channels; and yet CNN reports that ads from hundreds of major brands are still appearing as pre-rolls for actual Nazis.

The ongoing failure to police billions of hours of content isn’t exactly baffling — this is a difficult problem to solve — but it is disappointing that YouTube seems to have repeatedly erred on the side of monetization.

As with previous reports, CNN’s article shows that ads were running on channels that, if YouTube’s content rules are to be believed, should have been demonetized and demoted instantly: Nazis, pedophiles, extremists of the right, left, and everywhere in between. Maybe even Logan Paul.

And the system appears to be working in strange ways: one screenshot shows a video by a self-avowed Nazi, entitled “David Duke on Harvey Weinstein exposing Jewish domination. Black/White genetic differences.” Below it a YouTube warning states that “certain features have been disabled for this video,” including comments and sharing, because of “content that may be inappropriate or offensive to some audiences.”

A cheerful ad from Nissan is running ahead of this enlightening piece of media, and CNN notes that ads also ran on it coming from the Friends of Zion Museum and the Jewish National Fund! Ads from the Toy Association ran on the channel of a guy who argued for the decriminalization of pedophilia!

I can’t really add anything to this. It’s so absurd I can barely believe it myself. Remember, this is after the company supposedly spent a year (at the very least) working to prevent this exact thing from happening. I left the headline in the present tense because I’m so certain that it’s still going on.

The responsibility really is YouTube’s, and if it can’t live up to its own promises, companies are going to leave it behind rather than face viral videos of their logo smoothly fading into a swastika on the wall of some sad basement-dwelling bigot. “Subway — eat fresh! And now, some guy’s thoughts on genocide.”

Some of the other brands that had ads run against offensive content: Amazon, Adidas, Cisco, Hilton, Hershey, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Netflix, Nordstrom, The Washington Post, The New York Times, 20th Century Fox Film, Under Armour, The Centers for Disease Control, Department of Transportation, Customs and Border Protection, Veterans Affairs the US Coast Guard Academy.

I’ve asked YouTube for comment on how this happened — or rather, how it never stopped happening.

Ad-blocking browser Brave signs up Dow Jones as a partner

It looks like at least one major news publisher is on-board with Brave, the ad-blocking web browser founded by former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich.

Brave Software and Dow Jones Media Group announced today they will be partnering in a deal that will bring Dow Jones content (specifically, full access to Barrons.com or a premium MarketWatch newsletter) to “a limited number of users who download the Brave browser on a first-come, first-serve basis.”

In addition, Barron’s and MarketWatch are becoming verified publishers on Brave’s Basic Attention Token (BAT) platform, a blockchain-based system that will allow consumers and eventually advertisers to pay publishers. (Brave had a hugely successful initial coin offering last year.)

And the companies said they will be working together to experiment with different ways to use blockchain technology in media and advertising.

“As global digital publishers, we believe it is important to continually explore new and emerging technologies that can be used to build quality customer experiences,” said Barron’s Senior Vice President Daniel Bernard in the announcement.

The language that the companies are using, as well as the absence of publisher’s flagship newspaper The Wall Street Journal from the deal, suggests that Dow Jones isn’t going all-in on this experiment yet.

But it’s certainly a dramatic change in tone from the way most publishers talk about ad-blockers. In fact, a group of newspapers (including the Journal) published a letter two years stating that Brave’s business model was “indistinguishable from a plan to steal our content to publish on your own website.”

Brave recently announced the launch of a referral program that rewards creators with BAT when they convince their fans to switch over to the browser. The company also said it has 2 million monthly active users.

A flaw-by-flaw guide to Facebook’s new GDPR privacy changes

Facebook is about to start pushing European users to speed through giving consent for its new GDPR privacy law compliance changes. They ask users review how Facebook uses data around the web to target you with ads, sensitive profile info they share, and facial recognition But with a design the encourages rapidly hitting the “Agree” button, a lack of granular controls, a laughably cheatable parental consent request for teens, and an aesthetic overhaul of Download Your Information that doesn’t make it any easier to switch social networks, Facebook shows it’s still hungry for your data.

The new privacy change and terms of service consent flow will appear starting this week to European users, though they’ll be able to dismiss it for now, at least until the May 25th GDPR compliance deadline Facebook vowed to uphold in Europe. Meanwhile, Facebook says it will roll out the changes and consent flow globally over the coming weeks and months, though with some slight regional differences. And finally, all teens worldwide that share sensitive info will have to go through the weak new parental consent flow.

Facebook brought a group of reporters to the new Building 23 at its Menlo Park headquarters to preview the changes. But feedback was heavily critical as journalists grilled Facebook’s deput chief privacy officer Rob Sherman. Questions centered around how Facebook makes accepting the updates much easier than review or changing them, but Sherman stuck to talking points about how important it was to give users choice and information.

“Trust is really important and it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do to regain the trust of people on our service” he said, giving us deja vu about Mark Zuckerberg’s testimonies before congress. “We know that people won’t becomfortable using facebook if they don’t feel that their information is protected.”

Trouble At Each Step Of Facebook’s Privacy Consent Flow

There are a ton of small changes so we’ll lay out each with our criticisms.

Facebook’s consent flow starts well enough with the screen above offering a solid overview of why it’s making changes for GDPR and what you’ll be reviewing. But with just an ‘X’ up top to back out, it’s already training users to speed through by hitting that big blue button at the bottom.

Sensitive Info

First up is control of your sensitive profile information, specifically your sexual preference, religious views, and political views. As you’ll see at each step, you can either hit the pretty blue “Accept And Continue” button regardless of whether you’ve scrolled through the information. But if you hit the ugly grey “Manage Settings” button, you have to go through an interstitial where Facebook makes it’s argument trying to deter you from moving the info before letting you make and save your choice. It feels obviously designed to get users to breeze through it by offering no resistance to continue, but friction if you want to make changes.

Facebook doesn’t let advertisers target you based on this sensitive info, which is good. The only exception is that in the US, political views alongside political Pages and Events you interact with inform your overarching personality categories that can be targeted with ads. But your only option here is either to remove any info you’ve shared in these categories so friends can’t see it, or allow Facebook to use it to personalize the site. There’s no option to keep this stuff on your profile but not let Facebook use it.

Facial Recognition

The Face Recognition step won’t actually give users in the European Union a choice, as the government has banned the feature. But everyone else will get to choose whether to leave their existing setting, which defaults to on, or turn off the feature. Here the lack of granularity is concerning. Users might want to see warnings about possible impersonators using their face in their profile pics, but not be suggested as someone to tag in their friends’ photos. Unfortunately, it’s all or nothing. While Facebook is right to make it simple to turn on or off completely, granular controls that unfold for those that want them would be much more empowering.

Data Collection Across The Web

A major concern that’s arisen in the wake of Zuckerberg’s testimonies is how Facebook uses data collected about you from around the web to target users with ads and optimize its service. While Facebook deputer chief privacy officer Rob Sherman echoed Zuckerberg in saying that users tell the company they prefer relevant ads, and that this data can help thwart hackers and scrapers, many users are unsettled by the offsite collection practices. Here, Facebook lets you block it from targeting you wih ads based on data about your browsing behavior on sites that show its Like and share buttons, conversion Pixel, or Audience Network ads. Here the issue is that there’s no way to stop Facebook from using that data from personalizing your News Feed or optimizing other parts of its service.

New Terms Of Service

Facebook recently rewrote its Terms Of Service and Data Use Policy to be more explicit and easy to read. It didn’t make any significant changes other than noting the policy now applies to its subsidiaries like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus. That’s all clearly explained here, which is nice. But the fact that the button to reject the new Terms Of Service isn’t even a button, it’s a tiny ‘see your options’ hyperlink shows how badly Facebook wants to avoid you closing your account. When Facebook’s product designer for the GDPR flow was asked if she thought this hyperlink was the best way to present the alternative to the big ‘I Accept’ button, she disingenuously said yes, eliciting scoffs from the room of reporters. It seems obvious that Facebook is trying to minimize the visibility of the path to account deletion rather than making it an obvious course of action if you don’t agree to its terms.

I requested Facebook actually show us what was on the other side of the that tine ‘see my options’ link and this is what we got. First, Facebook doesn’t mention its temporary deactivation option, just the scary permanent delete option. Facebook recommends downloading your data before deleting your account, which you should. But the fact that you’ll have to wait (often a few hours) before you can download your data could push users to delay deletion and perhaps never resume. And only if you keep scrolling do you get to another tiny “I’m ready to delete my account” hyperlink instead of a real button.

Parental Consent

GDPR also implements new regulation about how teens are treated, specifically users between the ages of 13 (the minimum age required to sign up for Facebook) and 15. If users in this age range have shared their religious views, political views, or sexual preference, Facebook requires them to either remove it or get parental consent to keep it. But the system for attaining and verifying that parental consent is a joke.

Users merely select one of their Facebook friends or enter an email address, and that person is asked to give consent for their ‘child’ to share sensitive info. But Facebook blindly trusts that they’ve actually selected their parent or guardian, even though it has a feature for users to designate who their family is, and the kid could put anyone in the email field, including an alternate address they control. Sherman says Facebook is “not seeking to collect additional information” to verify parental consent, so it seems Facebook is happy to let teens easily bypass the checkup.

Privacy Shortcuts

To keep all users abreast of their privacy settings, Facebook has redesigned its Privacy Shortcuts in a colorful format that sticks out from the rest of the site. No complaints here.

Download Your Information

Facebook has completely redesigned its Download Your Information tool after keeping it basically the same for the past 8 years. You can now view your content and data in different categories without downloading it, which alongside the new privacy shortcuts is perhaps the only unequivocally positive and unproblematic change amidst today’s announcements.

And Facebook now lets you select certain categories of data, date ranges, JSON or HTML format, and image quality to download. That could make it quicker and easier if you just need a copy of a certain type of content but don’t need to export all your photos and videos for example. Thankfully, Facebook says you’ll be able to now export your media in a higher resolution than the old tool allowed.

But the big problem here was the subject of my feature piece about Facebook’s lack of data portability. The Download Your Information tool is supposed to let you take your data and go to a different social network. But it only exports your social graph aka your friends as a text list of names. There are no links, usernames, or other unique identifiers unless friends opt into let you export their email or phone number, so good luck finding the right John Smith on another app. The new version of Download Your Information works exactly the same, rather than offering any interoperable format that would let you find your friends elsewhere.

A Higher Standard

Overall, it seems like Facebook is complying with the letter of GDPR law, but with questionable spirit. Sure, privacy is boring to a lot of people. Too little info and they feel confused and scared. Too many choices and screens and they feel overwhelmed and annoyed. Facebook struck the right balance in some places here. But the subtly pushy designs seem intended to push people away from changing their defaults in ways that could hamper Facebook’s mission and business.

Making the choices even in visible weight, rather than burying the ways to make changes in grayed-out buttons and tiny links, would have been more fair. And it would have shown that Facebook has faith in the value it provides, such that users would stick around and leave features enabled if they truly wanted to.

When questioned about this, Sherman pointed the finger at other tech companies, saying he thought Facebook was more upfront with users. Asked to clarify if he thought Facebook’s approach was “better”, he said “I think that’s right”. But Facebook isn’t being judged by the industry standard because it’s not a standard company. It’s built its purpose and its business on top of our private data, and touted itself as a boon to the world. But when asked to clear a higher bar for privacy, Facebook delved into design tricks to keep from losing our data

The psychological impact of an $11 Facebook subscription

Would being asked to pay Facebook to remove ads make you appreciate their value or resent them even more? As Facebook considers offering an ad-free subscription option, there are deeper questions than how much money it could earn. Facebook has the opportunity to let us decide how we compensate it for social networking. But choice doesn’t always make people happy.

In February I explored the idea of how Facebook could disarm data privacy backlash and boost well-being by letting us pay a monthly subscription fee instead of selling our attention to advertisers. The big takeaways were:

  • Mark Zuckerberg insists that Facebook will remain free to everyone, including those who can’t afford a monthly fee, so subscriptions would be an opt-in alternative to ads rather than a replacement that forces everyone to pay
  • Partially decoupling the business model from maximizing your total time spent on Facebook could let it actually prioritize time well spent because it wouldn’t have to sacrifice ad revenue
  • The monthly subscription price would need to offset Facebook’s ad earnings. In the US & Canada Facebook earned $19.9 billion in 2017 from 239 million users. That means the average user there would have to pay $7 per month

However, my analysis neglected some of the psychological fallout of telling people they only get to ditch ads if they can afford it, the loss of ubiquitous reach for advertisers, and the reality of which users would cough up the cash. Though on the other hand, I also neglected the epiphany a price tag could produce for users angry about targeted advertising.

What’s Best For Everyone

This conversation is relevant because Zuckerberg was asked twice by congress about Facebook potentially offering subscriptions. Zuckerberg endorsed the merits of ad-supported apps, but never ruled out letting users buy a premium version. “We don’t offer an option today for people to pay to not show ads” Zuckerberg said, later elaborating that “Overall, I think that the ads experience is going to be the best one. I think in general, people like not having to pay for a service. A lot of people can’t afford to pay for a service around the world, and this aligns with our mission the best.”

But that word ‘today’ gave a glimmer of hope that we might be able to pay in the future.

Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a US House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 11, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

What would we be paying for beyond removing ads, though?. Facebook already lets users concerned about their privacy opt out of some ad targeting, just not seeing ads as a whole. Zuckerberg’s stumping for free Internet services make it seem unlikely that Facebook would build valuable features and reserve them for subscribers

Spotify only lets paid users play any song they want on-demand, while ad-supported users are stuck on shuffle. LinkedIn only lets paid users message anyone they want and appear as a ‘featured applicant’ to hirers, while ad-supported users can only message their connections. Netflix only lets paid users…use it at all.

But Facebook views social networking as a human right, and would likely want to give all users any extra features it developed like News Feed filters to weed out politics or baby pics. Facebook also probably wouldn’t sell features that break privacy like how LinkedIn subscribers can see who visited their profiles. In fact, I wouldn’t bet on Facebook offering any significant premium-only features beyond removing ads. That could make it a tough sell.

Meanwhile, advertisers trying to reach every member of a demographic might not want a way for people to pay to opt-out of ads. If they’re trying to promote a new movie, a restaurant chain, or an election campaign, they’d want as strong of penetration amongst their target audience as they can get. A subscription model punches holes in the ubiquity of Facebook ads that drive businesses to the app.

Resentment Vs Appreciation

But the biggest issue is that Facebook is just really good at monetizing with ads. For never charging users, it earns a ton of money. $40 billion in 2017. Convincing people to pay more with their wallets than their eyeballs may be difficult. And the ones who want to pay are probably worth much more than the average.

Let’s look at the US & Canada market where Facebook earns the most per user because they’re wealthier and have more disposable income than people in other parts of the world, and therefore command higher ad rates. On average US and Canada users earn Facebook $7 per month from ads. But those willing and able to pay are probably richer than the average user, so luxury businesses pay more to advertise to them, and probably spend more time browsing Facebook than the average user, so they see more of those ads.

Brace for sticker shock, because for Facebook to offset the ad revenue of these rich hardcore users, it might have to charge more like $11 to $14 per month.

With no bonus features, that price for something they can get for free could seem way too high. Many who could afford it still wouldn’t justify it, regardless of how much time they spend on Facebook compared to other media subscriptions they shell out for. Those who truly can’t afford it might suddenly feel more resentment towards the Facebook ads they’ve been scrolling past unperturbed for years. Each one would be a reminder that they don’t have the cash to escape Facebook’s data mines.

But perhaps it’s just as likely that people would feel the exact opposite — that having to see those ads really isn’t so bad when faced with the alternative of a steep subscription price.

People often don’t see worth in what they get for free. Being confronted with a price tag could make them more cognizant of the value exchange they’re voluntarily entering. Social networking costs money to operate, and they have to pay somehow. Seeing ads keeps Facebook’s lights on, its labs full of future products, and its investors happy.

That’s why it might not matter if Facebook can only get 4 percent, or 1 percent, or 0.1 percent of users to pay. It could be worth it for Facebook to build out a subscription option to empower users with a sense of choice and provide perspective on the value they already receive for free.

For more big news about Facebook, check out our recent coverage:

Ad king Sir Martin Sorrell steps down from WPP following misconduct investigation

There’s big news in the world of advertising. Sir Martin Sorrell has stepped down from WPP, the world’s largest ad business.

Sorrell had been in the midst of an unspecified investigation about “personal misconduct and misuse of company assets.” He has denied the allegations.

WPP provided us with the following statement.

“Sir Martin Sorrell has stepped down as Chief Executive Officer of WPP with immediate effect. Robert Quarta, Chairman of WPP, becomes Executive Chairman until the appointment of a new Chief Executive Officer…Sir Martin will be available to assist with the transition. The previously announced investigation into an allegation of misconduct against Sir Martin Sorrell has concluded. The allegation did not involve amounts that are material…Sir Martin will be treated as having retired…

The $20.8 billion British company owns big brands in the marketing and communications world, including Olgivy & Mather, Young & Rubicam and 400 others. The company has over 200,000 employees.

73-year-old Sorrell was largely responsible for growing WPP into the advertising empire, having founded the business in 1985. He remained at the helm for decades. Some of its biggest clients include Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

A spokesperson for WPP provided a statement, attributed to Sorrell. “Obviously I am sad to leave WPP after 33 years. It has been a passion, focus and source of energy for so long. However, I believe it is in the best interests of the business if I step down now.”

The ad business has changed a lot since Sorrell launched WPP. The biggest budgets have been overhauled, gradually shifting portfolios to include more online advertising.

WPP’s stock has fallen 22% in the past year amid sluggish growth. Competitors like Omnicom and Publicis have struggled similarly.

As of last year, Sorrell was said to have a net worth of 495 million pounds, or over $700 million. His compensation exceeded $100 million in some years.