The accounts of researchers at New York University have been deleted by Facebook, blocking their research on political ads and misinformation. Facebook cites protection of its users’ data.

Update | 06/08/2021 at 11:03

Federal Trade Commission reacts to the caseOn

Wednesday, August 4, Facebook published a blog post to explain the actions taken against researchers associated with the NYU Ad Observatory project. In it, the company explained that it was putting an end to “unauthorized scraping and protecting the privacy of individuals in accordance with [its] privacy program under the FTC’s order.”

The firm later retracted its statement regarding the FTC order citation.

But the case caught the attention of Samuel Levine, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. The man issued a letter stating that, as the company has since acknowledged, the allegations relying on the FTC order are inaccurate, and that “the FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of individuals and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission.”

If you had kept your commitment to contact us beforehand, we would have clarified that the consent decree does not prohibit Facebook from creating exceptions for bona fide research in the public interest,” the director wrote. Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, particularly around surveillance-based advertising. While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope the company does not use privacy – much less the FTC’s consent order – as a pretext to advance other goals.”

Relations are straining between Facebook and some of the academic community. The personal accounts of researchers at New York University (NYU) working on targeted advertising and misinformation on Facebook have been banned by the company. The company claims that the data collection carried out by these professionals endangered the privacy of its users.

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Laura Edelson, a researcher at New York University, spoke out on Twitter about this after her Facebook account was shut down. “Over thepast few years, we have used this access to uncover systemic flaws in Facebook’s ad library, identify misinformation in political ads, including many sowing distrust in our electoral system, and

to study the apparent amplification of partisan misinformation by Facebook,” she explained.

The NYU Ad Observer in question, available as a plug-in for users, seeks, for example, to track who pays for political ads on Facebook and to identify the mechanisms at work behind targeted ads. A work that goes further than the tools of the Facebook Library, which in a certain effort of transparency aims to inform the public about the ads. The famous“Why am I seeing this ad?” comes from it, but some data are not publicly visible on Facebook, as the social network itself indicates.

Facebook is hiding behind the safety of its users

In a statement, Facebook defended itself by arguing that the Observatory was violating its privacy policies by retrieving information from Internet users without their consent. “For months, we tried to work with New York University to provide three of their researchers with the specific access they had requested in a way that protected privacy,” the statement said. Today, we have disabled the accounts, applications, pages and platform access associated with NYU’s Ad Observatory project and its operators after our repeated attempts to bring their research into compliance with our terms.”

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As a result, Facebook says that NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political ads using unauthorized means to access and collect data on Facebook, in violation of its terms of service. “We told the researchers a year ago, in the summer of 2020, that their Ad Observatory extension would violate our Terms before the tool even launched,” the company continued. In October 2020, we sent them a formal letter informing them of the violation of our Terms of Service and gave them 45 days to comply with our request to stop removing data from our website.”

Despite the longer time frame ultimately given to the researchers, Mark Zuckerberg’s company ultimately made good on its threats.

Tech giants reluctant to investigate

For Facebook, Google, or the other web giants, the apparent transparency efforts in recent years are also a good way to control what is studied and published about their algorithms. The <a href=”https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/14/technology/facebook-data.html” target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow noopener”>New York Times reported in July that Facebook executives had decided to disband the team in charge of CrowdTangle, a data analysis tool used by researchers and acquired by Facebook a few years ago.

“Facebook executives have been more concerned with correcting the perception that Facebook amplifies harmful content than with determining whether [the company] has actually amplified harmful content,” former CrowdTangle employees were quoted by the U.S. media outlet as saying at the time.