Facebook rolls out high-tech ad registry with a low-tech twist

Facebook is rolling out its Canadian political ad registry today with a low-tech twist — a bid to prevent people based outside of Canada from running ads in the upcoming federal election.

Registering to run a political or issues ad in Canada could take up to two weeks

Facebook Canada's head of public policy Kevin Chan says the company has been working on transparency for Canadian political ads for two years. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Facebook is rolling out its Canadian political ad registry today with a low-tech twist — a bid to prevent people based outside of Canada from running ads in the upcoming federal election.

While the popular online platform is putting several high-tech measures in place to prevent people from using Facebook ads to disrupt the election, it's also relying on Canada Post and old-fashioned 'snail mail' to ensure that those who want to place political ads are actually in Canada.

"This idea of the mail and using the mail service to a residence in Canada is precisely to ... get further signals that you're resident in Canada," Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook Canada, told CBC News.

"All of these things are designed to ensure that we're kind of covered in terms of, 'Are you really in Canada, are you really who you say you are?'"

Facebook's new searchable ad library — which will allow people to see political ads being run in Canada even if they aren't the intended recipients — is scheduled to go online at noon, eastern time.

Bill C-76, adopted late last year, introduced new rules for those who want to run online ads during the federal election campaign this fall and the pre-writ period that starts June 30.

The new rules are designed to prevent the attempts to disrupt elections through targeted social media advertising that took place during recent elections in other countries.

Under the law, online platforms that accept political advertising by political parties, candidates or interest groups will have to set up special ad registries that include copies of the ads and the name of the person who authorized them.

Some online platforms opting out of election ads

The law also bans websites from knowingly accepting ads paid for by someone outside Canada, or by a foreign entity. In addition to Facebook, CBC.ca and Postmedia — which owns some of Canada's largest newspapers — are planning their own digital advertising registries, which will be in place by June 30.

However, many of the most popular websites in Canada have decided to comply with the new election rules by not accepting political advertising.

Microsoft said it has banned political advertising on its platforms around the world because it was just too difficult to comply with the array of laws being adopted by different countries.

Google has said there wasn't enough time before the fall campaign for it to develop an ad registry, so it won't accept ads either.

Yahoo has not yet said what it will do.

Ian Plunkett, head of public policy communications at Twitter, said the company will comply with the changes to the elections law but offered no specifics.

"We are committed to protecting the integrity of elections and transparency is a key component of that mission," he wrote in a statement. "We're working to appropriately scope our product and policy response to be efficient and effective, and are actively engaged with legislators on these critical issues."

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Plunkett's statement came less than 24 hours after Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould publicly called out the social media giant for its failure to say how it plans to comply with the changes to the elections law, or whether it will back her declaration on election integrity.

"I think it's important for Canadians to be aware that Twitter has essentially decided not to take responsibility for these activities, that Twitter is not committing to what they will do here in Canada, and quite frankly we're facing a time crunch," Gould told reporters on her way into question period Thursday.

"The pre-writ period is going to be coming very shortly. The election is coming shortly and we have yet to hear from Twitter."

'You're still on the hook'

Saying it isn't going to take political ads doesn't absolve a website from liability, said Gould.

"If you don't accept political advertisements, you're still on the hook as social media platforms if any ads appear on your platform," she said. "And it will be up to the commissioner of Canada Elections to enforce that."

While the law requires an ad registry to go online by June 30, Chan said Facebook decided to put its ad library online earlier — in part because those who want to advertise will have to register first, and registration could take up to two weeks.

"It's not something that can be done in a day or a few hours. This is something that is very new in the digital ad space."

Those who want to run ads on Facebook about social issues, elections or politics will have to provide valid Canadian identity documents — such as a passport, driver's license, provincial identity card or certificate of Indian status — and verify their location in Canada.

To determine where a would-be advertiser is located, Facebook will look at online indicators and send the advertiser a letter to a Canadian address containing a code required to run political ads.

Facebook's plan was two years in the making

It will also monitor to ensure the same address isn't being used for multiple advertisers.

If a group is placing the ad, Facebook will make public contact information for a representative of the group.

Chan said the company has been working on election transparency for the past two years — since long before Parliament changed the law — and plans to have the ad library in place for other votes in Canada in the future.

"We intend to do more than what is required in the legislation," he said, adding that Facebook will hold political ads in its ad library for seven years.

The searchable ad library will show copies of the ad, who paid for it, a spending range and rudimentary demographic information — such as gender and location — about the audience the ad reached.

Chan said, however, that Facebook has no plan to reveal the microtargeting information that details who exactly the advertiser is trying to reach. Facebook's ability to microtarget ads, based on a wide variety of factors and information drawn from users' Facebook profiles, has made it very popular with advertisers.

"This is just consistent with how the marketing industry works generally," said Chan. 

Elizabeth Thompson is part of a CBC team investigating online misinformation and attempts to disrupt the upcoming Canadian election. Have a tip? She can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

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