An anti-abortion group threatened Facebook with legal action in the run-up to the Irish abortion referendum after the social media giant removed one of its pages. The Times reports that the “Undecided on the 8th” page was taken down by Facebook out of concerns that it intended to mislead referendum voters.
The page purported to provide unbiased information about the referendum and was linked to Undecided8.org, a now-defunct website that listed an American religious group as its account host. The Facebook page also used similar colors to official Referendum Commission website.
Niamh Sweeney, the head of policy for Facebook in Ireland, said at a forum in Dublin: “Our terms of service ban deceptive behaviour so once we became aware of that we shut it down, and withstood the threats of legal action to reinstate it."
Sweeney declined to provide further details on the specific legal threat. Facebook did not respond to requests from Broadly for comment.
The "Undecided on the 8th" page presented itself as a source of impartial and objective information about the abortion referendum, but tracked visitors—whom it identified as undecided voters—to Undecided8.org and served them with further targeted Facebook advertising.
Protect the 8th, an Irish campaign run by the anti-abortion organization Family & Life, also ran adverts promoting the website across Google's platforms. These visitors were also tracked and served tailored advertising on Facebook.
The practice of tracking visitors to web pages and serving them with so-called dark advertising occupies a legal gray area in Irish electoral campaign law.
Sweeney said that Facebook sought advice from the Standards in Public Office Commission around the time of the referendum due to an absence of clear rules about foreign funding and political advertising. The social media giant then took the unprecedented step of banning all foreign-funded adverts aimed at Irish voters. It also made all political ads public to prevent further abuse.
Google also stopped publishing adverts related to the Irish referendum. A company representative yesterday also expressed concerns that the laws regarding online political advertising needed to be clarified. "There is a gap between what the law says and what the public's expectations are, that is what played out in the referendum campaign," said Ryan Meade, Google's public policy manager in Ireland.
Despite the efforts of anti-abortion groups like Family & Life, abortion was successfully legalized in the Republic of Ireland earlier this year.