ne of the ways Facebook has been able to get away with some pretty questionable behaviour over the years is that exploiting users’ data is an abstract problem that doesn’t seem to impinge on our daily lives, and for which there is no obvious solution. What can we really do if Facebook figures out our commute time to work and uses that information to sell advertising? And is it worth doing anything if we don’t even notice it’s happened?
This is why the news that Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert.com is planning on suing Facebook for defamation – after it failed to stop scam adverts appearing on its site that featured his face – presents an opportunity for campaigners seeking to impose regulations on Facebook. Lewis is an eminently recognisable figure, who is largely seen to be on the side of those who oppose swindling corporations. He has said he isn’t planning on keeping any potential damages from the case, but is partly using it as an opportunity to raise awareness about fake adverts. Facebook’s assertion that it is Lewis’s responsibility to report scams exploiting his image looks absurd.
To be clear, these adverts have not just appeared on Facebook, but all across the internet (including the Guardian) via what is known as “programmatic advertising”, which involves online publishers and platforms selling advertising space to brands or agencies. The adverts are displayed automatically, meaning Facebook doesn’t vet them. But some publishers are trying to tackle the risks inherent to programmatic advertising: last year Daniel Spears, programmatic director at the Guardian, appealed to publishers to clean it up, calling it “the art of buying crap”. Facebook, on the other hand, has told Lewis he must report adverts that use his name himself if he wants the matter to be addressed – despite the fact that Facebook is one of the internet’s biggest platform for programmatic advertising.
This is a new iteration of the Facebook scandal that is grounded in people’s experiences, and will have material consequences if left unaddressed. Campaigners can use it to emphasise the fact that the platform is a multinational corporation existing in the real world, not simply a website cooked up by a student in his dorm room – as Mark Zuckerberg might have it. As our lives become increasingly digitised, it’s more important than ever to hold internet giants to account; to be clear what their responsibilities are, and insist that they meet them.