On April 6, Facebook announced a number of changes, which aimed to demystify the site’s political ad scene. The new policies would require identity verification for any and all advertisers wanting to run political or “issue” ads on Facebook. It was the sort of move the company’s critics had been pushing for for weeks: a perfect way to force transparency — or at least, so it seemed until CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony poked a big fat hole in it.
“[E]very advertiser who wants to run political or issue ads will need to be verified,” wrote Zuckerberg in an April 6 Facebook post. “To get verified, advertisers will need to confirm their identity and location. Any advertiser who doesn’t pass will be prohibited from running political or issue ads. We will also label them and advertisers will have to show you who paid for them. We're starting this in the US and expanding to the rest of the world in the coming months.”
This was the aspect of the verification policy that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) zeroed in on during Zuckerberg’s Tuesday testimony before Congress. He asked Zuckerberg how he intended to “find out who is really behind the content that's being posted.”
At first, Zuckerberg provided a bit more detail on the specifics of the identity verification process: “So what we’re going to do is require a valid government identity, and we’re going to verify the location. So we’re going to do that so that way someone sitting in Russia, for example, couldn’t say that they are in America and, therefore, [be] able to run an election ad.”
But that wasn’t a good enough answer for Sen. Whitehouse. He seemed to be specifically interested in how this verification policy would tackle the use of shell corporations — businesses without any actual assets or business that are often used as a front for some other company or individual that wants to keep their involvement on the DL.
“But if they were running a corporation domiciled in Delaware” — a state notorious for its lackadaisical attitude towards shell corporations — you wouldn’t actually know that they are a Russian owner.”
A brief pause. Then: “Senator, that’s correct.”
Perhaps it’s merely the buzz of Zuck’s Big Day In Court, but exchanges like these seem emblematic of a greater problem within Facebook as a whole. It doesn’t matter how great the idea seems in a big picture sense, if you screw up on the details — like say, designing an identity verification system that can be fooled with ten minutes of effort — the thought doesn’t count.
It’s the same principle that applies to another key question in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica saga, specifically the legitimacy of GSR’s now-infamous app, “This Is Your Digital Life.” Sure, Facebook has rules set in place that dictated what sort of information app developers could ask users for, and what could be done with that information, but GSR broke them anyway. It scraped data from far more sources than it ostensibly should have, and sold that data to Cambridge Analytica. Because when your company policy is all bark and no bite, it stops being policy.