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To:

Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg, Facebook
Sundar Pichai and Kent Walker, Google

4 November 2019

We write today as a group of researchers, technologists, digital rights defenders, and Internet users concerned about online political advertising in the context of the upcoming national election in the United Kingdom.

It is promising that you’re calling for regulation on your platforms. The UK Electoral Commission, Information Commissioner and the cross-party DCMS Select Committee are also calling for urgent legislative action to help address the issue of political ads. But with the announcement of the election coming in only six weeks, there is no time for regulations to catch up.

This legislative blackspot is particularly concerning in light of Facebook’s recent policies to allow politicians to openly publish disinformation through ads. Equally concerning is the lack of transparency as to what data is being used to target ads, and how such ads are being targeted. We are aware that these policies are subject to debate both inside and outside the company. While that debate continues, people in the UK are left in uncertainty about whether they can trust what they see on the platform.

It is also concerning in light of the European Commission’s criticism this week of the reliability of the political ad archives you made available during this year’s European Parliamentary elections.

These issues will take time to resolve, but in the UK we do not have time.

As we prepare to enter purdah, and without proper legislation, we’re calling on you to take a stand and issue an immediate moratorium on all political and issue-based advertising on your platforms until the conclusion of the UK Parliamentary Elections on the 12th of December.

This is not without precedent. In the Irish referendum on abortion rights last year, Google blocked political advertising two weeks before polling day. In the Israeli and Canadian elections, political ads were blocked outright for the duration of the election period. Blocking political and issue-based ads is not a long-term solution, and we recognise that this measure may impact the much-needed voices of smaller campaign groups. But in the UK context, with dated electoral law and a lack of implementation of existing data protection laws, coupled with your platform’s failures to sufficiently address the concerns raised, in this instance, it’s a necessary trade-off.

Again, this call is not about a permanent ban on political and issue-based ads; indeed, political ads are not inherently problematic. But the online advertising model, which depends on vast collection of data and opaque ad targeting systems is not fit for purpose and thus fundamentally undermines trust in political advertising. It is a request to take temporary measures to ensure that your platforms are not complicit in exploiting electoral laws MPs themselves have described as “unfit for purpose”.

And it is a request to do it now, and not closer to voting day, to allow candidates and parties the time to plan their campaigns accordingly.

Sincerely,

Jon Lloyd, Mozilla
Alex Krasodomski-Jones, Demos
Catherine Miller, Doteveryone
Chloe Colliver, Institute for Strategic Dialogue
Jeni Tennison, Open Data Institute
Irene Knapp & Jack Poulson, Tech Inquiry
Dr. Kate Dommett, University of Sheffield
Catherine Stihler, Open Knowledge Foundation
Adrian Lovett, President and CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation

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