Facebook should embrace transparency

Transparency matters. It matters in personal and business relationships. It matters at local, national and international level. It matters in government and governance as it builds trust, loyalty, confidence and morale. It allows acceptance of even unwelcome decisions because the process that led to them is clear, understandable and unambiguous. It also limits nefarious activities by identifying those responsible, thereby making them accountable for their actions.

Secrecy does the opposite. It allows people with power and money to influence everything from what we consume to how we vote, without ever being held accountable. Internet giants like Facebook amplify both transparency and secrecy many times over, which is why they need to take their role in aiding secret influencers more seriously.

Facebook is about to be challenged on that in the UK as the information commissioner’s office has said it will use its powers to obtain information from it about a secretive network of pro-Brexit advertising campaigns on the network masquerading as a grassroots movement.

Tackling such disinformation would be far easier if Facebook and other international social media players adopted a policy of full transparency. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks a lot about transparency within his own organisation but his approach to policing the internet is more circumspect.

On a visit to Dublin this week, he conceded that he could not guarantee that Facebook would not be used to undermine the forthcoming European Parliament elections but said it would apply a “full battery” of measures to stop bad actors from influencing events.

That belies what Facebook did earlier this year when it restricted the ability of external political transparency campaigners in the UK and the US to monitor adverts placed on the social network. WhoTargetsMe, a British group dedicated to scrutinising online ads, and the US investigative journalism site ProPublica had their ability to operate severely restricted. Their monitoring tools had helped expose advertising tactics used by politicians, making it harder for those who pay for negative adverts to escape detection.

Zuckerberg insists that Facebook has been engaged in policing harmful content, protecting election integrity and making sure data privacy controls are strong while also ensuring openness and data portability.

He said at the company’s European headquarters in Dublin:

There is still obviously a lot more to do, but I’m proud of the progress we’ve made so far.

But it is also his stated view that it should not be the role of private companies alone to decide how best to police an online world. There are few who would argue with that but the problem is that there is only so much that individual countries and their governments can do and none have the global reach of Facebook.

It may take an international treaty to bring some sort of order to the Wild West of the internet. In the meantime, a little bit of transparency by Facebook and other social media giants would go a long way.

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