Protocol | Policy

Lawmakers want to force Big Tech to give researchers more data

The Social Media DATA Act would give academics access to detailed ad targeting information to help researchers root out problematic ads.

Representative Lori Trahan at a microphone

Rep. Lori Trahan co-sponsored the Social Media DATA Act.

Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Facebook's ad library allows researchers to see the content of ads that run on the platform and information on who those ads reach. But there is one key insight Facebook doesn't offer: information on how those ads were targeted.

A new bill being introduced Thursday by two House Democrats could change that. The Social Media DATA Act, introduced by Reps. Lori Trahan and Kathy Castor, 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.

"The Social Media DATA Act will help shine a long overdue light on all of the impacts ad targeting has on consumers — not just the rosy picture painted by companies focused on their bottom line," Trahan said in a statement.

Researchers say ad targeting data is crucial to understanding advertisers' intent. A housing ad, for example, 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.

The company recently tried to shut down a project spearheaded by academics at New York University, who use a browser extension to scrape political ads users see and then collect and publish targeting data from those ads. Facebook says that activity violates its policies against scraping, a legally murky practice that's currently being debated in U.S. courts.

The Social Media DATA Act would ensure that researchers like the ones at NYU could have access to this information without putting themselves in legal jeopardy. It would also require platforms to maintain databases of this information — currently, doing so is voluntary — and ensure that platforms' databases are searchable and machine-readable. Large ad platforms with more than 100 million monthly active users would be required to give researchers affiliated with academic institutions access to these databases, which would include ads from any advertiser spending more than $500 a year on the platform.

The bill also establishes 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.

Facebook has been pushing "transparency" as the regulatory solution to many of the debates in Washington around content moderation and digital advertising. The company has taken some steps to limit targeting of certain ads to sensitive groups such as race or religion. But that hasn't always worked, as evidenced by a recent investigation in The Markup.

Facebook has also gone further than most companies in building a database of all of the ads running on its platform, albeit without targeting information. But that database can be difficult for researchers to study, as ads disappear once they've finished running. Both Facebook and Google have put up specific political ad archives as well, but the bill would require the companies to disclose far more information about those ads than they currently do.

The DATA Act has support from advocacy organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, Common Sense and Public Knowledge. Tech giants will no doubt resist giving away such sensitive information about their advertisers. Advertisers have already opposed most of the transparency efforts these companies have put in place so far, arguing they create too much friction for fast-moving ad campaigns and risk giving sensitive information away to competitors.

Privacy and competition are among the reasons why the Social Media DATA Act would restrict this information to researchers and the FTC only. The U.S. is not alone in considering such a carve-out for academics, either: In Europe, the Digital Services Act would also give researchers access to data from "very large platforms" that would otherwise be protected under the General Data Protection Regulation. The European Commission is also looking to have online platforms do more to combat the monetization of disinformation, including by tightening requirements for allowing advertising alongside the content, according to a Reuters report on Wednesday.

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