Facebook’s cash cow is its ad business, and in the unconstrained pursuit of making that business as valuable as possible, the company has been accused of allowing advertisers to explicitly target white nationalists, or exclude immigrants and people of color from seeing housing opportunities, or dodge older workers when posting job listings. There was also that whole Russia thing. So Facebook built an ad archive—first just for political spending, then for everything—and folks, it does exactly what it was designed to do.
Employees at Mozilla, government workers with Office of the French Ambassador for Digital Affairs, and data journalists the New York Times reported today that, despite using what’s designed to be a more robust, non-public version of the ad library, Facebook’s Ad Archive does not meet even the barest needs of these researchers, with the product failing in ways that would be humiliating for a company the fraction of Facebook’s size.
Per the Times, Facebook put on the charade of making the data available, but create a process so difficult in extracting the information as to rending it useless:
With each search limited to 2,000 results, the researchers needed to do 1,900 searches to collect all the data
[Mozilla researchers managed] to download the information they needed on only two days [worth of ads] in a six-week span because of bugs and technical issues
With the relatively lousy internet speeds in the U.S., six weeks is long enough to download the entire Library of Congress—about 23 times over.
These are not hard problems to solve for a firm with the engineering pool and brain trust of Facebook. But the prevailing assumption is that Facebook is in any way interested in making the Ads Archive functional.
Jason Chuang, a Mozilla researcher, engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with Facebook about a bug that crashed a search after 59 pages of results. Weeks later, a Facebook representative sent a message saying, “This is unfortunately a won’t fix for now.” [...] as recently as this week, the researchers said the library still crashed when they tried to check if the bug was fixed.
But let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the big, awful company that’s lied to us repeatedly: An archive of your core business function can’t be easy, and all software has issues early on. At least, as issues arose, the researchers could file bug reports.
On two other occasions, the researchers said Facebook blocked them from reporting fresh bugs. The reason? They had already reported too many.
So it has some issues. And the Ad Archive isn’t exactly priority #1 at Facebook HQ. But when it returns results, researchers can trust that—
[Researchers] found that identical searches often returned different results
So maybe its “searchability” was overstated, but at least it preserves this content and in doing so fulfills the basic function of an archive.
The French officials also found that Facebook sometimes removed ads without explanation. They said 31 percent of the ads in the French library were removed in the week before the European elections, including at least 11 that violated French electoral law.
Tools—functioning tools—to glean rich data about these ads already existed, built by Mozilla and ProPublica among others. Facebook made the intentional move to shut them out in January, claiming the code changes that locked out these tools were part of “a routine update and applied to ad blocking and ad scraping plug-ins, which can expose people’s information to bad actors in ways they did not expect.”