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The law that could lay bare ad targeting

The Capitol Building​

Good morning! This Friday, how a new bill would force platforms to share details about ad targeting, Basecamp isn't budging on its policies, Tim Cook takes the stand in the Epic v. Apple trial, and Google is opening its first brick-and-mortar store (which is just a Google version of an Apple store).

A new law would force Big Tech to share ad data

Since the chaos of the 2016 election, Facebook has done a lot to increase transparency around the ads that run on its platform. The one thing it still refuses to share? Data on who those ads target. But a new bill introduced by House Democrats on Thursday could change that, as my colleague Ben Brody and I wrote.

This is the Social Media DATA Act, introduced by Reps. Lori Trahan and Kathy Castor, and it would force large platforms like Facebook and Google to give researchers and the Federal Trade Commission access to more detailed ad libraries. Those libraries would include, among other things, a description of the audience that was targeted, information about how many people interacted with the ad and details about whether the ad was optimized for awareness, traffic or some other purpose.

  • Researchers say ad targeting data is crucial to understanding advertisers' intent. A housing ad may seem innocuous — until you realize its target audience excludes Black viewers, or users in a ZIP code where most residents are Black.
  • But right now, even on Facebook — which has the most robust ad archive of any platform — the only way to see a given ad's targeting data is if you've been served the ads yourself.
  • Facebook argues the policy protects users from bad actors who might try to reverse-engineer those users' interests by collecting targeting data en masse. But the policy also means the growing number of researchers interested in studying digital advertising have to build workarounds — often without Facebook's consent.

I wrote recently about Facebook's battles with researchers at New York University, who built a browser extension to scrape ads users see while browsing Facebook. The researchers then publish the targeting data they collect in a public database. Facebook tried to shut that work down, citing its policies against web scraping. The Social Media DATA Act potentially could resolve those issues by giving researchers affiliated with academic institutions access to that targeting data they need.

The law would apply to big platforms with 100 million monthly active users or more, and the databases would include ads from anyone who spends more than $500 on the platform in a given year.

  • The bill would also establish a working group within the Federal Trade Commission that would develop a set of best practices around social media research. The group would help address the risks, often cited by social platforms, that even academics sometimes abuse user data, as was the case in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

For obvious reasons, tech companies are bound to resist this kind of forced disclosure. Yes, there are possible privacy concerns. But more than that, this law would make platforms vulnerable by forcing them to admit how effective — or ineffective — their ads really are.

— Issie Lapowsky (email | twitter)

A Message From Amazon

It's not just Amazon employees who experience the benefit of increasing their starting wage to at least $15 an hour — a recent study from the University of California-Berkeley and Brandeis University found that when Amazon raised wages, the average hourly wage in the surrounding area rose by 4.7%.

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People Are Talking

Things are back to normal at Basecamp, David Heinemeier Hansson said, and he's not changing his mind about the new policies:

  • "While there was a small uptick in cancelations for HEY during the first tumultuous week, they were more than offset by an increase in new customer signups for Basecamp. And now both products are growing like they were before that difficult week."

The San Francisco district attorney recall campaign against Chesa Boudin is dividing the city's uber-rich. In a series of tweets this week, investor David Sacks linked the mass tech exodus from San Francisco to Boudin's "decarcerationist" policies:

  • "Has anyone asked tech billionaires like [Mike Krieger], [Dustin Moskovitz], [and Reed Hastings] why they are funding this insanity, presumably from behind high walls in the suburbs?"
  • Moskovitz shot back in his own series of tweets: "I live in the city and am not going anywhere. Crime happens to me too, trust me [...] I'm not happy with the recent past, but think the counterfactual of an aggressive DA would have been very similar given exogenous circumstances."

Elon Musk seems to be trying to settle the crypto panic, saying he's a Dogecoin HODLer:

  • "Yeah, I haven't & won't sell any Doge."

Yuko Kawamoto resigned from SoftBank's board, and wrote an unusually candid message with some advice for the company:

  • "It would be nice if the 'obligation to dissent,' or to disagree when necessary, was more widespread throughout SBG."

Making Moves

Genesys hired new executives from Salesforce, Microsoft and Twilio, as CEO Tony Bates continues to turn the company toward the cloud.

Google is opening its first retail store in New York City. Picture an Apple Store, but with Google logos everywhere and Pixels instead of iPhones, and you've pretty much got it nailed.

Judson Althoff got a promotion at Microsoft. He's now executive vice president and chief commercial officer, leading a new group combining sales, marketing and commercial business.

In Other News

Tim Cook is taking the stand today in Epic v. Apple today. Few are better at saying a lot without saying much, but we don't often get to hear from Cook with such an open line of questioning. The trial is wrapping up, but there should be some fireworks left.

Almost 1,000 Apple employees signed a letter asking Tim Cook to put out a statement supporting Palestinians, The Verge reported, amid internal discussions about the recent violence that some employees said were dominated by pro-Zionist voices. Facebook is reportedly experiencing similar internal tensions.

On Protocol: Twitter is reopening its public verification process, more than three years after "pausing" new verifications. But not just anyone can get a blue check.

Don't miss this Wired story about the RSA hack from 2011, and how Chinese spies managed to get into government systems everywhere. A decade later, the story feels just as plausible.

On Protocol | Fintech: Robinhood will now let users buy shares in pre-IPO companies. It's part of the company's whole democratization ethos, but it does raise a question: Will Robinhood let you buy Robinhood shares before it goes public?

Tinder is trying to make people nicer. Its new "Are You Sure?" feature asks users to reconsider before sending possibly harmful language, and the company said the process reduced that language by more than 10% in testing.

The FTC is pushing Amazon to crack down on fake review scams. Amazon has banned some big sellers after finding they paid for reviews, but Recode reported that the company applied its rules somewhat inconsistently. And the FTC has noticed.

DeepMind failed to win autonomy from Google, according to The Wall Street Journal. Long-running negotiations to gain more independence are said to have fallen through last month.

On Protocol: Snap's new Spectacles are full-on AR glasses. They're just for developers for now, come with lots of limitations (like 30-minute battery life), and look like 3D glasses from 20 years ago, but they're a huge step forward in the augmented world Snap has been trying to build for years. Snap also launched a bunch of new camera tools for developers, because remember: Snap is not a social networking company; it's a camera company.

Loom and Pitch are coming for your team

Two new work tools you should be keeping an eye on, if you're not already using them. First is Loom, everybody's favorite video-screenshot app; it raised $130 million at a $1.53 billion valuation, making the platform worth four times what it was a year ago. And second there's Pitch, which wants to be the evolution of PowerPoint; it raised $85 million and said it plans to launch mobile apps, better collaboration and more fun features this year.

While companies are reconsidering how they work, they're also reconsidering the tools they use to do so. Google's making big moves to try and keep up, Monday.com is going public to try and take advantage, and in general this feels like a bit of a golden era of work software. Which is to say: If you're still using SharePoint and Keynote, just stop. Come join us in 2021.

A Message From Amazon

Kimberly thinks Amazon is "setting a good example for not only Florida, but every other state where the minimum wage is below $15/hr." That's because she has seen the difference $15/hr has made for her, her family, and her community.

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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to sourcecode@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day; see you Sunday.

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