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Facebook defends blocking researchers

Facebook defends move to block independent ad transparency research

Facebook Inc. strongly defended its decision to disable the accounts of independent ad transparency researchers, in a move that has been criticized by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Facebook said it disabled the accounts, apps, pages, and platform access for NYU’s Ad Observatory Project and participating researchers because their work violated its rules.

“For months, we’ve attempted to work with New York University to provide three of their researchers the precise access they’ve asked for in a privacy protected way. Today, we disabled the accounts, apps, 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,” said Mike Clark, Product Management Director at Facebook, in a blog post.

Clark claimed that NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political ads using unauthorized means to access and collect data from Facebook, in violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service. “We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order.”

He said that Facebook told the researchers a year ago, in summer of 2020, that their Ad Observatory extension would violate its Terms even before they launched the tool. In October, Facebook sent them a formal letter notifying them of the violation of its Terms of Service and granted them 45 days to comply with the request to stop scraping data from Facebook’s website. The deadline ended on November 30.

Clark also said that Facebook made it clear in a series of posts earlier this year that they take unauthorized data scraping seriously, and when they find instances of scraping they investigate and take action to protect the platform. “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.”

“Today’s action doesn’t change our commitment to providing more transparency around ads on Facebook or our ongoing collaborations with academia. We’ll continue to provide ways for responsible researchers to conduct studies that are in the public interest while protecting the security of our platform and the privacy of people who use it,” Clark said.

FTC criticizes Facebook

Facebook’s explanations seem to have not convinced the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which criticized the company for making “misleading claims” to explain why it had disabled the accounts of researchers.

Facebook wrongly used a 2019 data-privacy settlement with the FTC to justify shutting down the New York University researchers’ accounts, Samuel Levine, acting director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, said in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Levine also said Facebook failed to honor a prior commitment to notify the FTC in advance of taking such an action.


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