A British Conservative politician, who has called repeatedly for Mark Zuckerberg to come to parliament to answer questions about how Facebook fences fake news — only to be repeatedly rebuffed — has made a public call for the UK’s competition regulator to look into social media giants’ adtech operations.
Damian Collins, the chair of the DCMS committee which has spent months this year asking questions about how disinformation spreads online — culminating in a report, this summer, recommending the government impose a levy on social media to defend democracy — made the suggestion in a tweet that references a news article reporting on a U.S. class action lawsuit against Facebook.
Advertisers in the US lawsuit allege Facebook knowingly inflated video viewing stats and thus mislead them into spending more money on its ad platform than they otherwise would have.
But Facebook disputes the allegations, saying the lawsuit is “without merit”. It has also filed a motion to dismiss the claims of ad fraud.
Although, two years ago, it did ‘fess up to a ‘miscalculation’ around average video viewing times, saying it had mistakenly discounted all the people who dropped out of watching a video in the first 3 seconds in calculating averages — thereby bumping viewing averages up.
At about the same time, it also said it had discovered some other ad-related bugs and errors in its system that had led to the wrong numbers being reported across four products, including Instant Articles, video and Page Insights.
The advertisers in the class action lawsuit — which was filed back in 2016 — had originally claimed Facebook engaged in unfair business practices. After receiving tens of thousands of documents in relation to the case they amended their complaint to accuse the company of fraud, CBS reports.
In its statement denying the suit’s claims, Facebook also said: “Suggestions that we in any way tried to hide this issue from our partners are false. We told our customers about the error when we discovered it — and updated our help center to explain the issue.”
The company declined to comment on Collins’ remarks about adtech industry practices today.
A spokeswoman for the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also declined to comment when asked whether it has any concerns related to practices in the adtech sector.
Given market sensitivity to regulatory action it’s normal for the CMA to not want to stoke any speculation around a particular company.
For the same reason it would not normally discuss any complaints it’s received until the point of actually launching any investigation.
However this is not the first time the CMA has been urged by concerned politicians to investigate the adtech sector.
This fall another UK committee, the Lords Select Committee on Communications, directly asked the body to investigate digital advertising.
And earlier this month the CMA’s CEO, Andrea Coscelli, told the committee it is indeed considering doing so, if only it can carve out the resources to do so — saying he was worried about “potential gaps” in the regulatory framework around competition and consumer issues.
“A month ago, this Committee asked us to look at digital advertising. That is something we are actively considering, subject to Brexit in the next few weeks, because it has a big resource implication for us,” said Coscelli on October 9. “It is certainly something where we are interested in getting involved. If we did, we would work closely with Ofcom and give serious thought to the regulatory framework in that context.”
The CMA has also generally been ramping up its activity on the digital market front, recently spinning up a new data unit and appointing a chief data and digital insights officer, Stefan Hunt, hired in from the Financial Conduct Authority — to help it “develop and deliver an effective data and digital insight strategy… to better understand the impact that data, machine learning and other algorithms have on markets and people”.
So it sounds like a case of ‘watch this regulatory space’ for more action at the very least.
Elsewhere in Europe competition regulators have also been paying closer attention to the adtech industry in recent years — examining a variety of practices by adtech giants, Facebook and Google, and coming away with a range of antitrust-related concerns.
In preliminary findings at the end of last year, for example, Germany’s Federal Cartel Office accused Facebook of using its size to strong-arm users into handing over data.
While, earlier this year, the French Competition Authority suggested it was planning to investigate Facebook and Google‘s dominance of the adtech market, publishing a report in which it identified a raft of problematic behaviors — and pointed out that the two companies act as both publishers and technical intermediaries for advertisers, thereby gaining a competitive advantage.
Italian regulators have also been probing competition concerns related to big data for more than a year.
As we’ve reported before, the European Commission is also actively eyeing digital platforms’ market power — and looking to reshape competition policy to take account of how tech giants are able to draw on network effects and leverage their position from one market to another.
And when you’re talking about platform power, you are also — in the current era — talking about adtech.
There’s no doubt closer scrutiny of the digital advertising sector is coming. And with a brighter spotlight, tighter accountability screws applied to its practices.
Privacy reviews of adtech platforms have already raised plenty of ethical questions, in addition to flagging actual violations of the law.
This summer the UK’s data protection watchdog also called for an ethical pause of the use of social media ads for political purposes, writing that: “It is important that there is greater and genuine transparency about the use of such techniques to ensure that people have control over their own data and that the law is upheld.”
So while it remains to be seen what any competition investigations of the adtech sector will conclude, political momentum is building to increase transparency and ensure accountability — which makes regulation more likely.