Facebook chief: 'Defining what is political advertising is hard'

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Media captionSteve Hatch defends Facebook's decision not to ban political advertising, saying it 'bolsters democracy'

In the wake of the Brexit referendum and election of President Trump, it was necessary to ask: can democracy survive Facebook?

What is so striking, several years on, is the alarming gulf between how much our democracy has done to answer that question, and how much Facebook has done.

As I wrote last week, the UK has provided a test case in how not to regulate technology. The bandwidth taken up by Brexit; the churn in cabinet ministers; the naivety of politicians when it comes to social media; and the highly complex, global nature of these companies and their operations have all contributed to a remarkable lack of activity. Our electoral law is outdated.

In an exclusive interview this morning, Steve Hatch, Facebook's boss for Northern Europe, outlined the other half of the answer to the question above: what Facebook has done to bolster the democracies in which they operate.

They have done a lot. There is still much, much more they could do; but compared to most other platform companies, Facebook has been hyper-active and transparent. One irony of this is that, partly because they have made available an 'ad library', journalists are spending much more time poring over what's happening on Facebook than other platforms, who have made much less information available.

Clips from our interview will be on radio and TV bulletins this evening. The full interview will be available via The Media Show on BBC Sounds tomorrow. Here are some take-aways.

Foreign interference

Mr Hatch re-iterated something executives said on a conference call with journalists last week. At present, there is no indication of foreign interference in this election campaign.

Of course, it is early days; and foreign interference is a baggy term. If a foreign or malign actor wanted to influence our democracy through front groups - for instance, by channelling money to an organisation registered in the UK, which paid for political ads on Facebook - then this platform is an attractive opportunity.

I've written before about how dark ads are a constant influence.

Political ads

There has been plenty of outrage online and elsewhere about Facebook's stance on political ads: namely, not banning them, when much smaller platforms such as Twitter and TikTok have done so.

On this, Mr Hatch said the Facebook position is clear. It's hard to define what a political ad is - though as my brilliant colleague, Shayan Sardarizadeh of BBC Monitoring, pointed out to us last week, Facebook has finally gone much further in explaining what it thinks a politician is. You can read that explanation here.

The second issue is that, as Mr Hatch puts it, "to ban political advertising actually has an inherent bias, in that it helps entrench the positions of the incumbents at the cost of those that are less represented, have a quieter voice today, and are less well resourced".

Hillary Clinton was among those who applauded Twitter's move, and goaded Facebook - but hasn't to my knowledge satisfactorily answered the point about favouring incumbents.

Transparency

It is undoubtedly the case that Facebook has been more transparent than other companies, and is paying the price in journalistic scrutiny. But there are limits to the transparency of the Ad Library. First, the company makes much less information available on the Ad Library than that which is available to those who want to advertise on the platform.

Secondly, when the company removes a message, it does so with reference to a general message about violation of policies, rather than the specific policy that has been violated. I asked Mr Hatch why this is the case. He said the company is always looking at how to improve on this front, leaving open the possibility that more specific information will be made available in future.

Tax

It was on tax that Mr Hatch, in effect, said both the most and the least.

He said that the vast bulk of the taxes paid by Facebook are paid in America.

Why, I asked him, is it that Facebook makes 45 cents in profit for every $1 of sales in America; whereas in Britain, they make just 8.5p in profit for every £1 in sales.

Mr Hatch said that both "personally" and "across Facebook, we would like to see that [tax paid] spread more geographically." He went on: "We would want to see a fair distribution, a wider distribution, of the tax that we pay across the geographies that we operate in."

I asked a couple of times whether or not - were Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister - the company would pay a so-called "tech tax", not lobby against it, and not move its operations elsewhere. Mr Hatch said what he had to: the company would work with any future government. That's not surprising.

But it will give succour to those campaigning for tech giants to pay more tax in the jurisdictions where they operate. This isn't straightforward: it depends on what specifically is taxed, and it requires co-operation across many borders. And no doubt many a lobbyist would be put to work to make the case against it.

However, there is evidence of significant public support for greater taxes on the wealthy, be they corporations or individuals. The impression I got from Mr Hatch this morning is an awareness at the top of the company that the impasse between tech giants and British democracy over the past three years won't last.

If you're interested in issues such as these, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook; and also please subscribe to The Media Show podcast from Radio 4. I'm grateful for all constructive feedback. Thanks.