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Facebook disabled the accounts of several New York University researchers Tuesday, effectively ending a research project that examines how political advertisements target specific audiences on the popular social media platform.
The NYU Ad Observatory project launched in September, two months before the 2020 presidential election, the lead-up to which was riddled with misinformation campaigns. Researchers asked more than 6,500 volunteers to install a browser plug-in that allows the team to see which political ads are shown to each volunteer on Facebook. The goal of the project was to better understand how Facebook’s political advertisers target different audiences, but without access to the platform, the project has been forcibly paused.
“It’s disgraceful that Facebook is trying to silence independent research in the public interest,” said Laura Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at NYU and lead researcher on the project. “We will not allow Facebook to silence us or our work.”
Facebook claims the researchers’ methods violate its terms of service, which prohibit web scraping of private user information.
“We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program” required by federal trade laws, Mike Clark, product management director at Facebook, said in a statement Tuesday. “The researchers gathered data by creating a browser extension that was programmed to evade our detection systems and scrape data such as usernames, ads, links to user profiles and ‘Why am I seeing this ad?’ information, some of which is not publicly-viewable on Facebook.”
Online privacy experts say Facebook’s justification for banning the researchers is a disingenuous excuse. They say the private user information that Clark refers to in his statement belongs to advertisers, not to individual users. The browser plug-in employed by the NYU volunteers looks at the accounts of political advertisers, which includes their names and profile pictures, Protocol, a technology news site, explained.
Edelson took issue with Facebook's characterization of the project’s data collection methods.
“We do not agree with labeling what the Ad Observer tool does as ‘scraping,’” she said. “We independently gather anonymized information with users’ consent. Independent collection methods are vital if we’re going to be able to actually audit Facebook’s platform, which, as cybersecurity researchers, it is our job to do.”
Samuel Levine, acting director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commision, slammed Facebook's actions in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg Thursday, lambasting the company for using privacy concerns as a sheild.
"The FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission," Levine wrote. "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."
Ashkan Soltani, the former chief technologist for the FTC, doesn’t believe NYU has overstepped. Research volunteers donate information about the ads they see to the project via the browser plug-in they’ve installed, he explained on Twitter. The FTC order that Clark cites in his statement exempts situations in which users initiate the transfer of data to another organization themselves.
“Under a theory that the NYU browser extension has ‘the potential to access Covered Information’ one might ask why @Facebook has not similarly enforced these policies against the hundreds of other shady ‘Facebook’ Browser extensions available?” Soltani wrote, referring to third-party plug-ins that claim to allow users to delete all of their Facebook messages with one click, or learn which other users are looking at their profiles.
New York University officials stood behind the Ad Observatory research team and called Facebook’s actions regrettable.
“Our researchers are undertaking important, legitimate research, and the impediments that Facebook has put in their way are disappointing and, from our perspective, unjustified,” John Beckman, a spokesperson for NYU, wrote in a statement Thursday.
Facebook first demanded that the researchers behind the NYU Ad Observatory project stop collecting data and delete the data it had collected in an October cease-and-desist letter. If the researchers did not comply by Nov. 30, the company threatened “additional enforcement action.”
“While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be ignored and should be remediated,” Clark wrote. “The researchers knowingly violated our Terms against scraping -- which we went to great lengths to explain to them over the past year.”
Facebook’s recent action against NYU researchers highlights the fraught relationship between the tech giant and the colleges and universities using its data for research. Institutions have struggled to strike a balance between independent research and collaboration with the company.
Several years ago, dozens of colleges and universities -- including Princeton University, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan -- entered into agreements with Facebook to help the company develop new technologies in exchange for funding. Many of the institutions declined to talk about their agreements with Facebook at the time, potentially due to nondisclosure agreements or out of fear that they would be criticized for working with the polarizing company.
The number of researchers working with big technology companies has since grown. Mohamed Abdalla, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, recently learned that more than half of tenure-track artificial intelligence faculty members at four prominent, unnamed universities who disclose their funding sources have received some money from big tech companies, Wired reported.
“There are very few people that don’t have some sort of connection to Big Tech,” Abdalla told Wired.
NYU’s Edelson did not provide details about the team’s plans moving forward, but she said they “are going to continue with our mission of conducting research and providing the public with tools to uncover vulnerabilities in online spaces.”
Note: This article was updated to include information about a letter from the FTC responding to Facebook's action.