Facebook banned the personal accounts of academics who researched ad transparency and the spread of false information on the social network. Facebook says the group violated its terms of use by scratching user data without permission. But academics say they are being silenced for exposing issues on Facebook’s platform.

The researchers were part of NYU Advertising Observatory, a project created to examine the origin and distribution of political ads on Facebook. As the group explained in a blog post in May, their goal is to find out who pays for political ads and how they are targeted. Such work has important implications for understanding the spread of disinformation on Facebook, as the company does not verify political ads.

To facilitate their work, the researchers created a browser plug-in called Advertising observer, which automatically collects data about political ads served to users and the reasons why those ads are targeted to them. According to his website, the plug-in does not collect any personally identifying information, including user name, Facebook ID number, or friend list.

The data collected by Ad Observer is then made public to researchers and journalists who use the information to reveal trends and issues on Facebook’s platform. Stories resulting directly from this work include those from Facebook failure to disclose who pays for certain political ads, and how far-right disinformation is more engaging than disinformation from central or left-wing sources.

Facebook Offers some of this information voluntarily by his Announcement Library, but not at all. For example, it does not share data on how advertisements are targeted based on user interests. People can find this on their own by clicking on the ads shown to them, and it is this data that was collected by NYU. (Facebook provides information about ad targeting through a special research program called FORT, but this is monitored and filtered by Facebook itself.)

Laura Edelson, a NYU researcher involved in the project whose personal account has been banned by Facebook, said the company wants to end the independent review of its platform.

“Facebook silences us because our work often draws attention to issues on its platform,” Edelson Recount Bloomberg News in a statement sent by email. “Worse yet, Facebook uses user privacy, a fundamental belief that we have always put first in our work, as an excuse to do so. If this episode proves anything, it’s that Facebook shouldn’t have a veto over who is allowed to study them.

Facebook says it banned the researchers because they violated the social network’s terms of service, and that the Ad Observer plug-in “has collected data on Facebook users who have not installed or ‘have not consented to the collection’. Facebook’s wording suggests that researchers were collecting data on individuals without their consent, but, as reported by Protocol in March, Facebook actually refers to “advertiser accounts, including the names and profile photos of public pages that serve political ads and the content of those ads.” (The edge asked Facebook to confirm this, but the company declined to comment.)

Facebook certainly has good reason to be wary of third parties who collect data on its site. the Cambridge Analytica scandal was only made possible because the company did not exercise proper oversight over how information could be pulled from its platform. This resulted in a $ 5 billion fine for the company and new privacy controls by the FTC.

Facebook now says there is a need to ban New York researchers under these FTC guidelines, as well as disable their associated pages and access to the platform. However, some privacy experts disagree with this. Jonathan Mayer, a professor at Princeton University who researches technology and law, said on twitter that “Facebook’s legal argument is false”.

Facebook says it has repeatedly offered to work with NYU researchers by providing the data they need directly, and initially warned the group that they could be banned from the site last year.


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