Mozilla's Open Letter to Facebook and the Responsibility of the Tech Community to "Do No Democratic Harm"

In an open letter issued on February 11, 2019, organizations from across civil society urged Facebook to take meaningful action to improve the transparency of political advertising on the platform. Led by the Mozilla Foundation, a broad array of democracy and human rights groups, including members of the Design 4 Democracy (D4D) Coalition, co-signed the open letter, and supported its call for specific, time-bound action in order to improve transparency of political advertisements on social media platforms in the context of the European Union elections.

The D4D Coalition supports greater transparency regarding the use of social media for political campaigns, especially with respect to political ads. The Mozilla Foundation should be commended for its leadership on this issue.1 In response to this effort, Facebook has announced that the company will open its Ad Archive API in late March, and restated its intent to roll out additional tools globally in June. Facebook’s response is welcome and the D4D Coalition trusts that the democracy community will hold Facebook to its commitments.

Transparency of online political activities, especially political ads, is a pressing concern in electoral contexts throughout the world. It extends beyond Facebook to include a broad range of platforms and products. Transparency of political advertisements is vital in: 1) informing the public about the source of information in the pre-election environment, 2) enforcing legal limitations regarding political finance and advertising, and 3) providing greater information about efforts to manipulate an electoral process. When social media platforms are used for political advertisements, or to influence public opinion and political discourse, the platforms have an obligation to work with the civil society and the democracy community in that country to protect the integrity of the information environment and prevent their platforms from being abused to undermine democracy.

Those obligations include the responsibility to “do no democratic harm” in a country, regardless of the country’s market size. Many new or restored democracies may have a smaller market for the tech companies, but also have democratic institutions that are less resilient. These new or restored democracies are often more vulnerable to malign actors seeking to abuse social media platforms to manipulate electoral processes. Ad transparency is one important tool for addressing this problem. The D4D Coalition welcomes Facebook’s reaffirmation of its commitment to address this issue on its platform globally by the end of June. The Coalition will be closely watching the company to ensure it delivers on its promise. Furthermore, the D4D Coalition urges other companies whose platforms are used for political advertising to make meaningful progress to ensure implementation of effective global approaches to political ad transparency within a similar time frame.

To meet a standard of “doing no democratic harm,” tech companies will need to think not just in terms of rolling out new products, tools and policies. Tech companies must also create better mechanisms for deepened, proactive engagement with the democracy community. The Design 4 Democracy Coalition is predicated on the belief that regular dialogue between the democracy community and the tech community is essential if the tech platforms wish to protect their platforms from abuse and if democracy is to flourish in the digital age.

The D4D Coalition is working on a number of initiatives to support coordinated advocacy on these issues. If you want more information on the Coalition’s efforts, or if your organization is active on these issues and believes the Coalition can help amplify or support your efforts, please let us know.

1Raegan MacDonald, Head of EU Public Policy at the Mozilla Corporation, currently serves on the Advisory Board of the D4D Coalition.