Irish housing: homes for people not for profit

Irish housing: homes for people not for profit

Irish housing: homes for people not for profit 

housing estate at sunset
sibeal devilly

30th August 2021

 

What is one accessory from childhood or your preteen-era that you would still wear today? This is a question that often has people reminiscing over plastic beaded bracelets, Heelys, and tattoo chokers. For myself, the answer is easy: a red badge inscribed with six little words: “Bollocks to Austerity. Tax the Rich.”  

 

Thanks to the Irish voters’ remarkable ability to have faith in political parties who have succumbed to drinking the neoliberal Kool-Aid of low governmental intervention in markets, eleven years later the badge is as relevant, the situation worse, the fight harder, and the representation remarkably similar. Today as in 2010 we see a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach backed by the Greens in power, although in 2021 the blame is no longer conveniently escaped by Fine Gael. 

 

The badge sits today, as anti-establishment as ever, on my desk in my over-priced Dublin rental. Were it not a grim sign that things don’t seem to change for the better economically in this country, the placement might just seem poetic. Sadly, it serves more as a reminder of a fight that never quite seems to be over. 

 

So, how did we get here? From the declaration of independence to the establishment of the Irish state, we vowed this country would serve her people better than the exploitation of colonialism. We would eradicate tenements, remove a foreign source of power, and be a country returned to her people. Yet today, we see public housing riddled with rats, a build-to-rent heavy rental market that has been proclaimed a “government sponsored cartel,an average single first time buyer age of 42, and an asylum system described as “devastating” by its residents. 

 

This is all before we even look to rising levels of homelessness, a crisis with levels dubbed “not high” by our then (and current) Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar in 2017. Is this symbolic of the governing parties of Ireland? That old tactic of insisting that an issue is not yet at crisis level while burying heads in the sand until such point as a crisis occurs? 

  

And of course, while talking about housing it would be remiss not to mention Direct Provision (DP): a horrifying and inhumane situation arising in the modern era in the same state which writes off mother and baby homes as a shameful thing of the past – a state which does its utmost to avoid the necessary conversations around them both. These serve as two features of Irish accommodation that you would be hard-pressed to justify, and so the government simply doesn’t even try; it just seems to hope people will forget about DP. It isn’t supposed to be a home anyway, more of a (never-ending) stop-gap, so why would the conditions need to be any good? Can’t we let the market fix that too? Furthermore, the state of accommodation and halting sites for members of the Travelling community in Ireland makes a mockery of modern anti-racist sentiments in the country. 

 

Part V of The Planning and Development Bill (1999) called for developers to have to include a proportion (up to 20 per cent) of properties or land in a development sold to the state (the local authority) as social housing, in developments of nine houses or more. These developments are known as mixed tenure estates,” whereby private property owners and social or affordable housing residents live in the same development.  

 

A revision to the Act in 2002 (by a Progressive Democrat/Fianna Fáil government) allowed for a financial payment of the equivalent value of the land to be paid to the local authority, much to the delight of building associations and developers around the country who had opposed Part V since its inception. This revision meant that while the housing supply was increasing, social housing was not being contributed to the stock, allowing for an increase in private ownership in the market. While it was found that Part V had a relatively limited contribution to social housing output, the revision meant that, in many cases, no developmental contribution was made at all.  In 2015 this proportion was further reduced from 20 per cent to 10 per cent. 

 

Additionally, with a renewed property bubble spiking housing prices, often local authorities could not afford to purchase land or properties from developers, resulting in no addition being made to social or affordable housing stock whatsoever. 

 

Part V is symbolic of the shambolic planning that is a legacy of the Irish state. The long-term consequences of the revision (which is once again up for amendment in 2021) meant that public and affordable housing stock was not boosted. Lack of intervention by the government ensured housing prices were not capped, and so the unaffordable inflation of both house prices and rent continued. 

 

The right of a private landlord to make money is protected in our Constitution – but the right to housing is not.”

While the state could not afford 20 per cent or 10 per cent of developments, the ESRI this year estimates that by the end of 2021, the state will have spent €1.4 billion on the payment of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) to private landlords, subsidising a lack of state infrastructure with social welfare which perpetuates inflation of rents, which the government also refuses to cap.  

 

The right of a private landlord to make money is protected in our Constitution – but the right to housing is not. So, while rents have been allowed to increase by 4 per cent per annum, a figure which is not matched by salary increases or indeed by increases to minimum wage, the taxpayer is not just footing the bill for their own unaffordable rent, they’re footing the bill for HAP too: even the government can’t afford the rental market in this state. 

 

And really, none of this should be surprising. The Irish property market is not advertised as forever homes, but as investments, whether at a small-scale to individuals with money to invest in the build to rent market, or to vulture and cuckoo funds looking for the investment of their neoliberal dreams. 

 

The state’s solution to the problem of the Irish housing market seems not to be much different in the Irish modern state than it was during the era of British landlords: emigration of our (domestic) young. Admittedly today, the solution of emigration is paired with an assumption that inheritance will balance the disadvantage of our generation, not exactly the method of redistribution of wealth the leads to a successful welfare state – I come back to the solution of my favourite accessory: tax the rich. 

 

The legacy seems to remain of a land that does not provide viable opportunity or quality of tenure to its people, and so watches them set sail for countries happy to welcome the hard-working Irish with open arms. Trendy as world travel may be, our government doesn’t seem to recognise that it is no coincidence that those who stay are of either considerable means or those for whom leaving is not an option. For those in the middle, when faced with the prospect of rental inflation which exceeds salary, and with home ownership being a prospect only when paired with inheritance tax, if you’re lucky enough to have something to be taxed on, leaving is logical.  

 

A post-colonial society, successive Irish governments have behaved like anxious school children, scared  that the headteacher (the market) will chastise their adult choices. To save themselves the anxiety of taking the reins on the Irish economy, politicians have distracted themselves by blowing bubbles and crying to supranational supervisors when inevitably the bubbles of fantasy burst. For all the criticisms of Irish people throwing the baby out with the bath water during political scandals (with Phil Hogan still licking his wounds over this tendency), in election after election, we never seem to learn that no matter how shiny a bubble may seem when it’s growing, it really does always burst. 

 

 

 

Featured photo by Tom Thain

This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex

 

Ethiopia’s forgotten war

Ethiopia’s forgotten war

Ethiopia’s forgotten war

man stands on a bridge above an ethiopian highway
Emily Murphy

24th August 2021

 

While the world focuses on helping evacuate and support the people of Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of Kabul, the prolonged conflict in Ethiopia seems to be slipping from public consciousness. In 2019, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the 20-year border conflict between his nation and Eritrea. It seems that this period of stability was, however, to be short-lived.

 

For more than 20 years, the Ethiopian government has been dominated by a coalition of four ethnic-based groups. The Tigrayan group, who account for 6 per cent of the national population hold a considerable portion of government power. The TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) became the lead member of the government coalition in 1991, after war raged across Ethiopia in the 1970s and 80s. Following discontent and national protests, Abiy Ahmed was eventually appointed prime minister. In 2019, he dissolved the coalition and formed the Prosperity Party with several opposition parties, which the TPLF (controversially) refused to join. In the same year, national elections were also due to take place,  but these were postponed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. In spite of this, the Tigray province went ahead with local elections, in direct defiance of government orders. The TPLF also alleged that Abiy Ahmed was an illegitimate ruler.

 

More than two million people have fled the region, and there have been at least 10,000 reported deaths with tens of thousands of people are currently seeking refuge in the neighbouring country of Sudan.”

In early November 2020, an offensive operation in Tigray was carried out by the Ethiopian central government after allegations that the Tigrayian forces attacked Ethiopian military infrastructure in the region. This marked the beginning of the latest conflict in Ethiopia. More than two million people have fled the region, and there have been at least 10,000 reported deaths with tens of thousands of people are currently seeking refuge in the neighbouring country of Sudan. However, as communications have been almost entirely cut in the region, it is impossible to calculate exact numbers. The TPLF has been designated a terrorist organisation and have since formed the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) with non-TPLF members.

 

Speaking outside the Security Council Chamber on World Humanitarian Day, United Nations Chief António Guterres said that he is gravely concerned about the “unspeakable violence” against women and others in Tigray. He appealed for forces to “give peace a chance”and urged that “there is no military solution, and it is vital to preserve the unity and stability of Ethiopia.”

 

UN officials have warned that more than 400,000 people in the Tigray region are facing the worst global famine in decades, with an additional 1.8 million people on the brink of a food crisis. Since the conflict began last November, some 5.2 million people are in need of aid, which is being provided by the UN and the Ethiopian central government. On June 28, Tigrayian forces recaptured the region’s capital, Mekelle, and Abiy Ahmed declared an unilateral humanitarian ceasefire. However, the TPLF forces have seemingly ignored his call to action, allegedly continuing to fight and seizing more land in the process.

 

Many experts are now expecting that this unrest and violent discourse will continue in the west of Tigray and focus on the neighbouring Amhara region. There already exists a territory dispute between these two Ethiopian states. Experts also fear that the continued fighting may cause regional instability in a part of the world already consumed by conflict.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Gift Habeshaw

This article was supported by: STAND Business & Politics Editor Sean + Programme Assistant Alex

 

Is a diamond anyone’s best friend?

Is a diamond anyone’s best friend?

Is a diamond anyone’s best friend?

diamond on red background
june harhen

23rd August 2021

 

The diamond industry is wrought with historical strife that carries through to the present day and is home to rampant human rights abuses, but will turning away from mining and towards lab-growing provide a more comprehensive solution? 

 

Elegance, timelessness, and true love: markers of what we all know to be the consumer side of the diamond industry. But it’s no secret that the sparkle wears off all too quickly when we look past the marketing and that the diamond industry looks very different on the other side of its long supply chain. The global diamond jewellery industry is worth approximately $79 billion as of 2019, whilst those who mine the diamonds in small-scale, artisanal mines, which produce 15 per cent of the world’s diamonds earn less than one dollar a day. Measures such as the Kimberley Process (KP) have been in place since the blood diamond scandal of the early 2000s in which the world became aware of the sale of diamonds to fund the civil wars of Angola and Sierra Leone. 

 

However, the KP has many loopholes and does not exclude diamonds that have been mined in violation of human rights or labour laws. Its definition of “conflict diamonds” is limited to “gemstones sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow the state.” And where the KP has imposed a ban, diamonds from that place are still mined and sold by smuggling them over the border to an unbanned country. As diamonds are mostly impossible to trace to their respective mines, this practice is very difficult to regulate. It is in these loopholes that the abuses exist. The majority of small scale mining is unregulated in places where labour laws either do not exist or are not enforced.

 

The lack of laws leads not just to well-below-the-poverty-line wages, but also to fatal working conditions, child labour, and the flourishing of public health issues as the sex trade thrives in many diamond mining towns, leading to the spread of HIV and other STI’s.”

The lack of laws leads not just to well-below-the-poverty-line wages, but also to fatal working conditions, child labour, and the flourishing of public health issues as the sex trade thrives in many diamond mining towns, leading to the spread of HIV and other STI’s. It also causes the displacement of indigenous peoples, destruction of the surrounding environment, and not to mention abandoned mining pits filled with stagnant water becoming havens for mosquitoes, leading to the spread of malaria. Although these abuses do not exist throughout the entire diamond industry, they occur largely across Africa which is responsible for at least 50 per cent of the total global production of diamonds. In short, if you are purchasing a diamond you cannot guarantee that that diamond does not have blood on it.

 

The global jewellery industry is dominated by thirteen companies that are estimated to generate more than $30 billion annually, making up a significant sector of the diamond industry. These companies which include Tiffany’s, Cartier, Pandora and others were assessed by Human Rights Watch for their responsible sourcing of gold and diamonds. They analysed the companies’ actions based on company information that they were given directly and by the publicly available information about the company. It was Tiffany’s alone that was awarded a “strong” rating in the report, as they could trace all of their newly mined gold back to one mine of origin and conduct regular human rights assessments with the mine. They have partial custody over their diamonds and can trace some of them to specific mines. Bulgari, Cartier, Pandora, Signet were awarded “moderate” as they took some important steps towards responsible sourcing.

 

The remaining eight companies were rated weak or lower, and overwhelmingly the research found that there was an over-reliance by most companies on the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) for their human rights due diligence. The RJC’s governance is flawed and certifies companies that fail to meet even basic human rights standards. It is clear from the report that where there exists more money there does not exist higher standards of responsibility. These companies are responsible for a huge part of the demand for diamonds yet they are largely irresponsible when it comes to regulation of their supply chain; naturally, the industry accepts that low standard as standard. Therefore we see the continuation of acceptance of human rights abuses across the industry.

 

But there is another side to the diamond industry, one that produces diamonds that are aesthetically and chemically indistinguishable from mined diamonds. Lab-grown diamonds were invented in 1954. Whilst there was not much interest to begin with, the industry is on the up, having grown “15 per cent to 20 per cent in 2019, following a similar trajectory in 2018.” The interest in lab-grown diamonds is rising after years of them being perceived by the consumer and perpetuated by large diamond companies as fake or cheap. However, according to the most recent Bain report on the global diamond industry the “continued advances in technology contributed to double-digit growth in production and lower retail prices for lab-grown diamonds in 2019 and 2020” they noted that the growing demand was also thanks to consumers and investors alike prioritising “sustainability, transparency and social welfare.”

 

What’s more, lab diamonds typically retail at 30 per cent cheaper than their mined counterparts making the industry accessible to a larger consumer audience. The industry is beginning to accept the shift towards lab-grown diamonds, however, it is doubtfully thanks to the realisation that the diamond industry is so harmful to so many, and more likely due to the acceptance that diamond supplies are dwindling and that there is more money to be made by expanding to include cheaper lab-grown diamonds. Nonetheless, the industry giant DeBeers has launched its “Lightbox” collection which is exclusively lab-grown, Signet jewellers (the world’s largest diamond retailer) sells lab-grown diamonds alongside their mined ones, Pandora aims to use lab-grown diamonds exclusively by 2022. While there have been concerns in the past that lab-grown diamonds come with a huge environmental cost, requiring large amounts of electricity to produce, and in China where 50 to 60 per cent of these diamonds are made, the electricity is powered by coal. But the largest US producer, Diamond Foundry, says its process is “100% hydro-powered, meaning zero emissions.” It is also important to consider and compare the environmental costs of mining, manufacturing and shipping “natural” diamonds.

 

And so, if there seems to be no catch when it comes to lab-grown diamonds, what’s to stop them from being the sole future of the industry? They eliminate the problem of abuses in the mining process of natural diamonds, and if we were to move exclusively to the synthetic diamond, it would follow that there would be no more mines in which to exploit miners, therefore removing the problem. However, this thought remains purely ideological, because, for many places where the mines are a source of injury, pollution and exploitation, those same mines are one of few or sometimes the only source of income for the people there – these places include the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. One Congolese boy who left school to work in an artisanal mine to support his father said to Time, If people stop buying our diamonds, we won’t be able to eat. We still won’t be able to go to school. How does that help us?” In short, this represents a problem not just for the diamond industry, but for a plethora of industries.

 

Perhaps with the continuation of attempts to regulate the industry, there will remain both jobs and progress. But the change needs to be systematic if there is to be any hope that the mines will no longer be an equal source of suffering and livelihood. So, synthetic diamonds may be part of the solution but the diamond industry cannot simply turn its back on the portion of its supply chain that has provided for them for so many years, and turn the billions of dollars of profit towards creating change for those people who are responsible for 15 per cent of their supply. As consumers, we can continue to remain aware and educated and support only those companies that are taking responsible action.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Sabrina Ringquist

This article was supported by: STAND Business & Politics Editor Sean + Programme Assistant Alex

 

Taliban wins war in Afghanistan: what next?

Taliban wins war in Afghanistan: what next?

Taliban wins war in Afghanistan: what next?

foggy morning in afghanistan
Sean Creagh

17th August 2021

 

October 7, 2001: US President George W. Bush sits perched neatly behind the resolute desk of the Oval Office, directly facing the camera with a determined stare. Off-screen, his foot taps restlessly against the carpet. “Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against Al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan… We are joined in this operation by our staunch friend, Great Britain. Other close friends, including Canada, Australia, Germany, and France, have pledged forces as the operation unfolds [sic].”

 

In the month following the devastating and shocking 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration took the opportunity to wage a new kind of war: one against terror. The mass public support for the president (a whopping 92 per cent approval rating at one point) gave the administration the necessary momentum to take revenge against those who had wronged them. “Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader. We will not fail,” Bush critically remarked. “The Taliban will pay a price.”

 

Two decades on from this initial 2001 invasion, poised on an effervescent and unique moment in history, and the wheel seems to have come full circle for the American story in Afghanistan. Four presidencies later, and the push-pull of who was winning or losing at any one moment has proved rather pointless, as new advances by the Taliban have threatened to reverse any undoubted civil liberty gains for the Afghan people. After 20 years of US and NATO involvement, with trillions of dollars spent and over 3,500 coalition deaths, the allied forces are set to fully withdraw under a formal agreement by September 11 of this year – and no, the date is not a coincidence.

 

As the US continues to remove troops, the Taliban has taken this chance to retaliate with increased aggression, reclaiming large territories at breakneck speeds. In the last week alone, they have stepped up the pace to recapture crucial provincial capitals such as Ghazni, Kandahar, along with nine other cities. Now, it appears that insurgents have taken Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, as well, in a bloodshed moment where Taliban helicopter gunships fired free reign over government buildings. This has drawn widespread recrimination for the US in its choice to carry on with troop withdrawals despite the obvious risk the Taliban still currently poses, and the security risk that they now present should they take charge of the entire government – which they most certainly will.

 

This has led to some easy victories for the Taliban, who have now taken control of over two-thirds of the country and forced thousands of families to flee for their safety.”

The Afghan military, who have found it too difficult to defend rural districts, in response to the Taliban’s belligerence, have decided to simply abandon vast arrays of land – all in hopes of culminating their forces to defend (more) economically valuable cities. This has led to some easy victories for the Taliban, who have now taken control of over two-thirds of the country and forced thousands of families to flee for their safety. The Taliban has now also seized airports outside of Kunduz and Sheberghan in the north and Farah in the west, making it even more difficult to supply troubled government forces with arms.

 

President Joe Biden’s decision to continue the troop withdrawal (despite this retaliation) is unlikely to be reversed either. The agreement was made in May last year, under then-President Trump. It followed on from years of pressure at home to end America’s “forever wars,” and as a result Trump continued to sharply reduce troop numbers each year. Not an unpopular move, the appetite for war and revenge seemingly evaporated from the American public’s conscience. 

 

However, the US can still wield power from a minority position (without direct involvement) if it persists with its effective air strikes and special force’s operations. Other powers such as Pakistan, Iran, and Russia can also help, if they so choose, to push the Taliban to make concessions in return for recognition. 

 

This might include a power-sharing agreement which could see guarantees on women’s rights and free expression, or a peaceful transfer of power. Encouragingly, some in the Taliban leadership do not wish to become a pariah state once more, and recognise that to run the country successfully they would need some foreign trade links and international aid. However, all these talks of peace negotiations still seem a long way off, especially if one side presently has all the leverage.

 

Unfortunately, it does not seem in any scenario that there will be a valedictory moment for the final US troops who depart Afghanistan by September. The advancements made for women and young girls in terms of education and freedom, amongst others, are set to be lost when abject Islamic law is reinstated as a societal norm by the Taliban for the Afghan people. Washington now must cut its losses, but equally recognise its moral obligation to the country which it so failed; the final military cargo plane shooting off into the sky a lasting reminder of the shortcomings with the American imperialism ideology, which it so loves.

 

20 years later: July 14, 2021. Former US President George W. Bush sits down for an interview with DW News. His hair is greyer now, his eyes more dispirited and wearier than in 2001. “Is the withdrawal a mistake?” asks the interviewer. “You know, I think it is, yeah. I think that because the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad; and eh—I’m sad… It seems like [The Afghan people] are just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and eh – It breaks my heart.”

 

 

 

Featured photo by Mohammad Rahmani

This article was supported by: STAND Business & Politics Editor Sean + Programme Assistant Alex

 

A diamond is forever, or is it?

A diamond is forever, or is it?

A diamond is forever, or is it?

woman holding diamond ring
Emily Murphy

16th August 2021

 

For just over two hundred years diamonds have been a universal symbol of wealth and status. Despite their discovery in India in the 4th century BCE, they only became a significantly valuable commodity in the early 1800s. After decades of strategic marketing and celebrity endorsements, diamonds have become one of the most widely recognised and sought-after precious gems. However, with continuous mining and gradually depleting resources, a new alternative must be found. So, like with almost all issues, we turn to science and the lab-based manufacturing of these ever-popular paragons. 

 

Diamonds only became a mainstream product in 1947 when De Beers, a British company that mined in South Africa launched arguably the most successful advertising campaign of all time. “A diamond is forever.” Perhaps not their intention, but that simple slogan completely changed the way in which we see diamonds. The tagline sought to create a parallel between the gem and eternal love, but the company didn’t stop there. In 1977, De Beers launched a television advertisement with the tagline: “How else could two months’ salary last forever? A diamond is forever. De Beers.” The world was hooked. While the company has had many successful campaigns, none compare to their original. It was so popular in fact, it has even found its way into the entertainment industry. Artists like Shirley Bassey or the James Bond films for example, have chosen to adapt the famous phrase for popular titles in their respective fields, namely the hit 1973 song and 1971 film (both under the title “Diamonds are Forever”). 

 

Each year they release only enough diamonds to meet the annual demand to create the illusion of scarcity.”

However, diamonds are (in reality) not special, or rare. In fact, they are the most common precious stone in existence. In the 1800s, a diamond trove was unearthed in Kimberly, South Africa. This threatened to flood the market and render the gem worthless. De Beers intervened and purchased the mine to maintain control of the global market. Each year they release only enough diamonds to meet the annual demand to create the illusion of scarcity. In reality, there seems to be an almost unending supply, all hidden beneath the veil of capitalism.

 

Despite our historic love of diamonds, it seems young people are choosing to abandon the gem due to their high price economically, environmentally, and humanitarian-wise. While these reasons made up a significant number of ‘The Economist’ questions “why aren’t millennials buying diamonds,” they are not the only reasons. One of the most controversial issues surrounding the stones are conflict or ‘blood’ diamonds. These are aptly named both because of the high injury and mortality rate of miners and the catastrophic impact they have on the environment. 

 

Thus, those who do buy the stone are opting for a lab grown alternative. These are created by placing a ‘carbon seed’ (a tiny diamond fragment) in a microwave plasma oven with a varying amount of carbon heavy gas. The gas sticks to the seed creating a plasma ball which eventually forms a diamond over a 10-to-12-week period. This is not a new technology – it dates to 1954, however, it is increasing in popularity, Forbes estimated that by 2021, lab-grown diamonds could possess 7.5 per cent of the $80 billion global market. This process can reduce the final cost of the diamond by up to 40 per cent. These eco-friendly, conflict-free alternatives could become a significant contender in the jewellery market soon. 

 

The question remains though, if there is significant demand for this product, and awareness is growing without aggressive advertising campaigns, then why are jewellers so slow to include lab-grown diamonds in their collections? It seems that it mostly falls to the diamond companies’ reluctance to share the market. If demand continues to grow, they may be left with very little choice. It seems that millennials and Generation Z love the  lab-grown alternative, so they might be here to stay. Time will tell.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Jeremy Bishop

This article was supported by: STAND Business & Politics Editor Sean + Programme Assistant Alex

 

NYU research prompts Facebook to disable personal accounts

NYU research prompts Facebook to disable personal accounts

NYU research prompts Facebook to disable personal accounts  

workbench with multiple laptops
Elizabeth Quinn

10th August 2021

 

This week, Facebook moved to shut down the personal accounts of academics who were researching how advertisements are targeted on the platform. Allegedly, these accounts were removed in order to protect privacy, however, it has been viewed by the academic community as silencing independent research into the company.  

 

Facebook’s main income revenue is created by advertising. Advertisers on the platform have the ability to target specific sections of society. This gives advertisers the possibility to target specific sections of society in differing ways. This has the potential to affect democracies as it provides the opportunity to send opposing messages to differing sections of society. 

 

Due to these risks, Facebook has been pressured by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and researchers to provide more transparency in relation to the business model of targeted ads. In response to these calls, Facebook has created “Ad Libraries.” These libraries allow researchers to search ads currently being run or that have previously run on the platform. The Facebook Ad Library, however, lacks the information that the New York University (NYU) researchers seek out- how the ads are particularly targeted to different demographics.  

 

In order to gather information on Facebook targeting practices, the researchers in NYU created “Ad Observer.” This is a web browser extension that people can download voluntarily. When users download the extension, they agree to share the ads that they see on Facebook along with the information in the “Why am I seeing this ad” option that may accessed under every Facebook ad. Facebook have claimed that this extension “scrapes” data, and therefore is not in line with privacy protection. 

 

“By suspending the accounts of the researchers, Facebook is ultimately blocking them from working on the Ad Observatory, which helps in the examination of political ad data.”

On August 3, Facebook suspended the account of NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy leader, Laura Edelson, along with the accounts of people associated with the project and team at NYU. This move is said to come hours after Edelson informed the platform that she was studying the spread of disinformation in relation to the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6 of this year. By suspending the accounts of the researchers, Facebook is ultimately blocking them from working on the Ad Observatory, which helps in the examination of political ad data.  

 

The “Ad Observer” tool has been independently audited by Mozilla which has stated that the privacy of users is not compromised when using the browser extension – “It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers.” Thus, the argument that the tool is one that is diametrically at odds with its users’ privacy is one that does not hold. Curiously, although Facebook argues that this tool is not in line with users’ privacy, they have not moved to shut it down – the Ad Observer remains available to download. 

 

On the issue of privacy, Edelson stated “Facebook is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform. Worst of all, Facebook is using user privacy, a core belief that we have always put first in our work, as a pretext for doing this.” 

 

Another argument that Facebook has made is that it is not the privacy of the extension users who are at risk, rather it is the privacy of the advertisers. However, the advertisements are already in a public sphere so this argument is hard to comprehend. Indeed, Seth Berlin, partner at the law firm Ballard Spahr, has stated that the claim that political advertising is private is “truly remarkable” due to the fact that “the whole point of advertising is that it is intended to be public.” 

 

Facebook, in its statement also argued that the move to shut down the accounts was in order to remain within the consent decree required by Federal Trade Commission, a data privacy agreement. However, lawyers, politicians, and the FTC itself have stated that Facebook is not required to shut down the work under the consent decree. The FCT stated that the argument Facebook made was “inaccurate” and that the company can create exceptions for good faith research in the public interest under the Order – which is what the researchers were doing. Although the FTC says that Facebook has acknowledged that its argument based on the Order is inaccurate, they state “we hope that the company is not invoking privacy – much less the FTC consent order – as a pretext to advance other aims.” 

 

When this argument fell short, Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne stated that it was not the FTC’s consent decree which required the accounts to be shut down but rather the condition that Facebook have a “comprehensive privacy program.” What is included in this privacy programme is up to Facebook, meaning that Facebook can call the shots. There is no requirement that Facebook prohibit independent research in its terms but it seems unthinkable that it would do so voluntarily. This privacy programme essentially allows Facebook to draw the line where it sees fit.  Under its own terms, Facebook can silence people who are conducting important research, which has shown the company in an unflattering light. 

 

This incident has clearly shown that legislation is needed in order to force large tech companies like Facebook to provide information on how its targeted ads function. In the US, the introduction of a new bill would force Facebook to create databases for its ads, including targeting data. At another level, a debate has also begun on whether transparency is the answer or whether a ban on targeting persons based on tracking their online presence should be the answer due to the effects it has not only on individuals, but also for society. 

 

The Ad Observer extension may be downloaded here.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Marvin Meyer

This article was supported by: STAND Programme Assistant Alex