On Tuesday, Facebook stopped a team of researchers from New York University from studying political ads and COVID-19 misinformation by blocking their personal accounts, pages, apps, and access to its platform. The move was meant to stop NYU’s Ad Observatory from using a browser add-on it launched in 2020 to collect data about the political ads users see on Facebook.
Facebook says it blocked the Ad Observatory because NYU researchers violated the social media platform’s terms of service by scraping user data without permission. But the academics behind the Ad Observatory say they got permission from everyone who uses their browser add-on, and Facebook’s attempt to stop their research has more sinister roots in the platform trying to stop the academics from exposing problems.
“By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work,” Laura Edelson, an NYU researcher involved in the project who had her personal account banned, tweeted on August 3.
“Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project, including our work measuring vaccine misinformation with the Virality Project and many other partners who rely on our data. The work our team does to make data about disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy.”
In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s reasonable that Facebook might be nervous about third-parties collecting data from its platform. But Facebook insinuated, initially, that it blocked the Ad Observatory because of a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is, simply, untrue.
Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne later told Wired that the consent decree itself wasn’t the reason for the actions taken against the NYU researchers. Instead, Osborne noted the decree required that Facebook create rules for a privacy program that the researchers violated, according to Reuters. The FTC acknowledged Facebook’s response in a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but acting director Samuel Levine also pointedly noted that the revised explanation doesn’t change much.
“Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest,” Levine wrote. “Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising. While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope that the company is not invoking privacy – much less the FTC consent order – as a pretext to advance other aims.”
Facebook appears to be hiding behind a consent decree that doesn’t actually work in this case. And still, there are few paths forward for Facebook or the NYU Ad Observatory at this time, since neither has any real reason to move to the other side.
This whole situation is basically daring U.S. authorities to actually — finally — pursue regulation. As The Verge’s Casey Newton pointed out, the best way to force big tech companies and researchers to work with each other is for congress to pass some kind of privacy legislation with a dedicated space for academic researchers, and an agency that would do oversight of that research and the online platforms.
Some politicians appear to agree. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat who represents Virginia, called on Congress “to act to bring greater transparency to the shadowy world of online advertising,” according to NPR. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, tweeted that Facebook’s claim that the NYU tool potentially violated privacy law was a “bogus” excuse.
But public statements aren’t the same thing as laws or legislation. Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, told NPR that this entire situation — Facebook cutting off NYU researchers, and the academics having no real recourse — is proof enough that lawmakers need to do something.
“The company functions as a gatekeeper to journalism and research about how the company’s platform works and the impact of its platform on society. And we think that that is untenable,” she said. “The public urgently needs to know and needs to understand the implications of Facebook’s platform for public discourse and democracy.”