Facebook unable to make 'available' info on use of advertising by government in recent elections: executive

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
Singapore Democratic Party Chairman Paul Tambyah (left) and Facebook’s Asia-Pacific vice-president of public policy Simon Milner. (PHOTOS: Yahoo News Singapore file photo, gov.sg)

Facebook is unable to make the information about the use of advertising on the social media platform by political parties and the government in recent Singapore elections “available”, said a top executive in response to queries posed by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) last month.

“We are not able to make this information available but as you are hopefully aware we are committed to new levels of transparency around political and issue advertising in the future,” wrote Simon Milner, Facebook’s Asia-Pacific vice-president of public policy, in a letter addressed to SDP chairman Paul Tambyah on Tuesday (April 10).

Milner also said that Facebook is unable to answer “specific questions about relationships between political parties in Singapore and Cambridge Analytica (CA) since we do not have sight of such relationships”.

He added that political parties “are not empowered to request data from Facebook” and is not privy to the process that Facebook has in place for law enforcement.

The vast majority of requests received by Facebook from authorities relate to criminal cases – such as kidnappings – and they are for basic subscriber information, such as “email address, phone number and IP address”, explained Milner.

(SOURCE: Facebook)

Milner also addressed the issue of Facebook employees who have been involved in politics in Singapore and overseas.

Noting that some Facebook employees have been candidates in local and national elections, he said, “Like many other organisations, we have well-established processes in place to ensure that these activities are conducted outside working hours and do not involve Facebook’s company resources.”

In an email reply to Milner’s letter on Friday, Dr Tambyah wrote that the SDP looks forward to Facebook “continuing its non-partisan role in encouraging sharing of news and information and in the process, promoting greater transparency”.

“We are also heartened to learn that Facebook has well-established processes to ensure that your employees who may be involved with party politics in Singapore do not have unfair insider access to the company’s resources,” he added.

SDP’s queries to Facebook

Previously, Dr Tambyah wrote a letter on 29 March to Milner and Sandhya Devanathan, Facebook’s Singapore Country Director on the issue.

In it, he requested for a meeting with Facebook officials to address the party’s concerns about the “deliberate online falsehoods and the fallout from the matter surrounding Cambridge Analytica”, and their potential to impact “society and politics, particularly elections, in Singapore”.

Among the six questions fielded to Facebook officials were for the social media giant to make public the list of advertisements made by the government on Facebook and the list of political parties which have done so, and the amounts paid for them “especially during the periods of the 2015 general election or the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election”.

Dr Tambyah also called for information on whether any group or individual affiliated to political parties in Singapore had received data from CA or used information taken from Facebook during these elections. 

He also asked Facebook to clarify “whether any of the senior positions in Facebook’s Singapore office are occupied by persons who are actively involved with, or identified as potential election candidates of, any political party in Singapore”.

“Our concerns, of course, emanate from the revelation that Facebook user profiles have been utilised to influence the 2016 Presidential elections in the United States and, more importantly, whether such a practice was employed in Singapore,” he added.

On 22 March, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam grilled Milner in Parliament House on why Facebook had not been open with information when it first found out about a massive breach of its user data arising from the CA saga.

Media reports in March had revealed that personal data of 50 million Facebook users were obtained by CA, a UK analytics firm, in part to help Donald Trump in his 2016 US presidential election campaign.

Facebook revealed last Thursday that information from the accounts of more than 65,000 users in Singapore could have been “improperly shared” with CA, according to media reports.

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