- Facebook Inc. has disabled the personal accounts of a group of New York University researchers studying political ads on social network, claiming they are scraping data in violation of the company's terms of service.
The company also disabled access to Facebook's APIs, technology used for sharing data from Facebook to other apps or services, and cut off other apps and Pages associated with the research project, according to Mike Clark, a director of product management on Facebook's privacy team.
The researchers are part of a project called the NYU Ad Observatory, which asks people to download a browser extension that collects data on what politically targeted ads the users see on Facebook and how those ads were targeted.
Political ads on Facebook are a source of contention for years. The company uses a controversial policy against fact-checking political ads, which led to criticism that candidates would pay the company to spread lies through their ads. Facebook eventually halted all new political ads in the week leading up to the 2020 Election in an effort to fight misinformation.
Last October, Facebook sent a cease and desist letter to the researchers urging them to stop collecting targeting data about Facebook political ads and threatening 'additional enforcement action'. Laura Edelson, a researcher with NYU's Tandon School of Engineering, told the Wall Street Journal at the time that the group would stop if Facebook provided more nuanced data themselves.
Clark said that Facebook offers targeting data sets for political ads, and has suggested the NYU group use this information. According to Facebook's terms of service, a user may not 'access or collect data from our products using automated means or attempt to access data you do not have permission to access.
The company wanted to punish the researchers in part to continue in compliance with a 2019 federal data privacy agreement with the Social Media Bureau in which the company was punished for failing to collect how data collected by outside developers, Clark said. In part of the settlement with regulators, Facebook was fined a record $5 billion.
Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science and the lead researcher behind the group, confirmed Tuesday night that her personal Facebook account and those of some of her colleagues were disabled. By cutting the group's access to Facebook's own data stream, the company is essentially ending NYU's effort to study misinformation in political ads, she added.
"Facebook is unsubscriber because our work calls attention often to problems on its platform," Edelson wrote in an emailed statement. 'Worst of all, Facebook is using the user privacy, a core belief that we have always put first in our work as a pretext for doing this. If this episode demonstrates anything it is that Facebook should not have veto power over who can study them.
The NYU-sponsored research project started before the 2020 U.S. presidential election to better study the thousands of political ads on social media. Political ads on Facebook are searchable in a public database, including some demographic data about the gender and location of people who saw the ad. But the database doesn't include details on how an ad was targeted, part of the information the Ad Observatory was trying to collect in detail.
Facebook's political ad library is 'is to use, untold numbers of political ads are lacking and a significant element is missing: how advertisers choose which specific demographics and groups of people should see their ad - and who shouldn't, the Ad Observatory researchers said on their website.
For instance, the Ad Observatory revealed that Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat, targeted Facebook users who were interested in topics such as former President Barack Obama, comedian Trevor Noah and Time Magazine during his campaign for U.S. Senate.