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Facebook blocks foreign ads ahead of Irish referendum on abortion

Facebook is taking unprecedented action to block outside forces from advertising in the Irish referendum on abortion laws.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of laptop users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration
Facebook is currently embroiled in a struggle to distance itself from the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal that saw user data improperly harvested.Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Facebook is taking aggressive action to block outside forces from advertising in the Irish referendum on abortion laws.

The social media platform announced on Tuesday that it would not be accepting ads related to its upcoming referendum vote from sources outside Ireland ahead of the country's vote. The country is set to vote on May 25 on whether to ease its abortion laws, which are considered some of the strictest in the world.

"Today, as part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence, we will begin rejecting ads related to the referendum if they are being run by advertisers based outside of Ireland," Facebook's Dublin office wrote in a blog post.

Facebook also noted that it is launching its "view ads" tool, which allows people to all the ads that a particular source is running. The company is also preparing a verification process to make sure advertisers are from the country where an election is taking place. Tuesday's move to block foreign ads, the company said, is similar to the result that will come from its verification tool.

"What we are now doing for the referendum on the [Irish] Eighth Amendment will allow us to operate as though these tools, which are not yet fully available, were in place today with respect to foreign referendum-related advertising," the company wrote in its note.

Facebook's move to block outside advertisers comes as the platform continues to implement new rules about political advertising. The company has been criticized for allowing foreign entities to buy ads targeting voters in other countries without disclosing the source of those ads.

The issue first came to light around the 2016 U.S. election, when accounts connected to a government-backed Russian agency were able to push divisive content in part by purchasing targeted ads.

Facebook has since said it will take steps to limit such actions, but journalists and watchdogs found that the platform was hosting a variety of ads from outside groups trying to sway voters Ireland's referendum.

Gavin Sheridan, CEO and founder of legal startup Vizlegal, has delved into some of the referendum ads on Facebook. A resident of Dublin, he said that he feels Facebook's decision is the right step but still has some skepticism about Facebook's willingness to self regulate.

"On balance, it's a good thing, surely" Sheridan said. "But the deeper question to me... is, is it good enough that Facebook regulates itself? And do we trust Mark Zuckerberg with election regulation?"

Facebook has recently shown more willingness to take broader stances against certain types of ads. In January, the company announced that it would no longer allow ads that promoted cryptocurrencies due to a variety of "misleading of deceptive promotional practices."