Facebook’s and Google’s ad-blocking changes: why the national security community should care
27 Feb 2019|

Facebook and Google disclosed last month that they would be making changes to the ways users can interact with, monitor and block advertisements. An independent programmer pointed out that the proposed changes to Google’s Chrome browser would prevent the internet’s most popular and effective ad blockers from being able to block ads at all. It was then revealed that Facebook had effectively blocked efforts that sought to hide or generate data from the ads we see in our newsfeeds.

There’s something much bigger at stake here than advertising revenue. These changes severely limit the ability of cybersecurity firms and other independent organisations to monitor and report on political influence campaigns, and therefore make it harder for the national security community to identify instances of foreign interference. Independent analysts have played a leading role in uncovering and dissecting the social media campaigns of foreign interests since the 2016 US election debacle. But, with these changes, Australia must brace for an election in which independent monitoring of political influence on social media will be next to impossible.

US-based independent newsroom ProPublica reported on 28 January that Facebook had made changes to its website code that prevented their browser extensions (small programs that integrate with web browsers to give added functionality) from discovering, tracking and reporting on the political ads that Facebook was showing its users. ProPublica, which has been curating an open database of political ads and the demographics they targeted, has an army of volunteers who monitor their Facebook feeds and the ads they contain using specially designed browser extensions.

Facebook has added code to the newsfeed that keeps extensions from interacting with ad menus, preventing automated monitoring of the ads that are being shown to users, as well as how and why they’re being shown. With this addition, tools such as ProPublica’s cease to function, unable to collect data crucial to monitoring political influence online. According to ProPublica, Facebook’s response to these concerns was that allowing automated clicks was a security risk and that this function could be used to ‘block’ ads. However, other common automated clicks (such as bot clicks liking a page, or clicking an ad to generate revenue) are unaffected.

Likewise, Google’s proposed changes will make it much harder to monitor ads on other websites and platforms for the 60% of total internet users who browse using Google Chrome. The changes would essentially remove the functionality that browser extensions rely on to block requests made by ad servers, replacing it with a system in which the final say on what a user sees is made by the website and browser.

Google claims that the change is about preserving user privacy. But regardless of the intention behind it, this change means that extensions won’t be able to examine or interact with data crucial for monitoring ads and their origins. By removing the ability for extensions to properly examine and filter web requests, Google will further erode internet transparency, essentially asking Chrome users to rely on the good word of websites as to what they contain, and limiting their capacity to peek behind the curtain to discover where what they see is coming from.

Given these companies’ dominance of the advertising market and the opaque nature of the internet itself, their constraining of independent observers from monitoring how sponsored content is delivered on their platforms should not be taken lightly. These moves run directly counter to the sort of public accountability and transparency needed after the 2016 US election revelations and stand at odds with the efforts of US lawmakers who are attempting to increase the responsibility and accountability of these companies.

Closer to home, despite Australia’s efforts to constrain foreign influence in investments and donations, Facebook’s decision means that we must prepare for an election cycle in which political influence on social media occurs without independent oversight. And even if its decision were reversed, the world’s most popular browser would be unable to provide data to researchers anyway.

Considering the proven capacity of internet-based political advertising campaigns to serve as an effective vehicle for foreign interference, it’s important that analysts be aware of the power they are about to lose, and that the national security community be aware of how much harder identifying instances of foreign interference will be.

The collection of aggregate data might be the business of Facebook and Google, but monitoring the use of that data by political interests is crucial to the health of our political process. Regardless of whether one sees these changes as justified on the part of Google and Facebook, the negative impacts they will have on the monitoring of political messaging on the internet is about to make the battle against foreign influence that much harder.