It seems to me that Facebook crossed an important line today when it announced it would ban all ads for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
Mainstream publishers have always limited the kinds of ads they accept. However, those limits have usually been dictated by law… the advertising of illegal substances or practices such as drug-taking, discrimination, promotion of hatred, etc. Publishers are also required to observe special laws restricting advertising of, for example, tobacco and alcohol products.
But with this move, Facebook is going much, much further. In choosing to eliminate ads for what are legal financial products, Facebook is appointing itself censor to an extent that far exceeds legal requirements.
That is, on the face of it, admirable. (And, for Facebook, far more convenient than inspecting and verifying every single ad.)
However, consider the flipside of this decision. Many in investors have made significant financial gains from cryptocurrencies. At least some of those promoting cryptocurrencies are doing so in good faith and with appropriate disclosure.
But now Facebook is prohibiting all ads for cryptocurrencies. They denying all advertisers – legitimate and shady – access to their platform. And, denying all Facebook users information about potentially lucrative (or disastrous) investment opportunities.
This is a dangerous precedent, and a slippery slope. What kind of advertising will Facebook censor next…?
How about ads for naturopathic health products, many of which make dubious and scientifically unproven claims? How about ads by political parties, which often make factually inaccurate claims about their opponents?
And what does this say about the ads Facebook does permit? By not censoring some ads, is Facebook tacitly accepting responsibility for the accuracy of those ads…?
I can understand why Facebook is trying to address recent criticism of its failure to police “bad actors” (eg. Russian state hackers) who abuse its platform.
While censoring entire classes of advertising is an easy fix, I’m not convinced it is the right one. I’d like to see the (cashed up) platform make more of an effort to apply judgement, and in a more nuanced way.