Sen. Cantwell Seeks FTC Investigation of Facebook Ad Policies

Facebook HQ
(Image credit: Facebook)

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has called on Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan to immediately launch an investigation of "recent revelations and public documentation" that it had misled advertisers and the public in making claims about the "brand safety" and reach of its ads, which she said would violate the FTC's prohibition on unfair and deceptive practices.

If the investigation confirms that public documentation, she said the FTC should take action including getting monetary relief for advertisers and "disgorgement" of the company's "ill-gotten gains."

Despite Facebook's claims about the safety of its product for ad brands and users, she said, whistleblower documents show that while Facebook has asserted that it is 97% effective in weeding out hate speech, its processes "miss more than 90 percent of hate speech content."

If that is the case, "Facebook may thus have made material misrepresentations or omissions to advertisers regarding the effectiveness of its brand safety controls, including its ability to remove criminal content," which would obviously impact how "safe" an ad environment the platform is.

She added that Facebook's rollout of some new brand safety tools claims to avoid adjacency with content in its "tragedy" and "conflict" categories 99% of the time. "If experience is any guide, these newest claims to advertisers may similarly break down under a microscope."

She wants the FTC to pull out that microscope and start looking, including at whether Facebook knew that its "potential reach" ad metric may have been inaccurate when it offered prospective advertisers that metric as a key measure of an ad's potential success, calling it “arguably the single most important number in our ads creation interfaces.”

"A thorough investigation by the Commission and other enforcement agencies is paramount, not only because Facebook and its executives may have violated federal law, but because members of the public and businesses are entitled to know the facts regarding Facebook’s conduct as they make their decisions about using the platform," she told Khan.

As evidence Facebook may have known that was not the case, she cited public analysis as far back as 2017 that demonstrated that its ads might have claimed potential reach that exceeded every 18-34-year-old in the country. ■

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.