Protocol | Policy

The FTC hits back at Facebook after it shut down NYU research

"I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter," Samuel Levine, acting director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection wrote in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg.

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In a letter to Mark Zuckerberg Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission's acting director for the Bureau of Consumer Protection said Facebook should not "use privacy" as "a pretext to advance other aims," after Facebook shut down the accounts of a team of researchers who were studying political ads on the platform. Facebook said the researchers had violated the company's terms of service which prohibit scraping.


"I write concerning Facebook's recent insinuation that its actions against an academic research project conducted by [New York University's] Ad Observatory were required by the company's consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission," Acting Director Samuel Levine wrote in the letter. "As the company has since acknowledged, this is inaccurate."

On Wednesday, Facebook published a blog post saying that it had taken actions against researchers associated with the NYU Ad Observatory project "to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people's privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC order." Facebook has since said the tool didn't explicitly violate the consent decree.

"While I appreciate that Facebook has now corrected the record, I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter," Levine wrote.

The NYU Ad Observer tool is a browser extension that enables Facebook users to send information about why they've been targeted with an ad to the NYU researchers. Facebook alleges that the NYU researchers have been collecting data from users who never consented to having their data collected, including advertisers, as well as people who have interacted with those ads.

"From a privacy perspective, Facebook doesn't differentiate between information scraped about people who are advertisers and those who are not," a Facebook spokesperson said Thursday. "The data they were collecting was from users who did not consent to share data with NYU, such as first name, last name, user name, Facebook ID, and link to profile photo as just a few of the examples."

The Ad Observer team does not, however, publish data about people who have interacted with the ads. Third parties, including Mozilla, which has reviewed the open source tool, have called Facebook's claims about privacy problems "wrong."

Levine stopped short of saying whether Facebook made the right or wrong call, but chastised Facebook for not giving the FTC a heads up about the issue. "[T]he FTC received no notice that Facebook would be publicly invoking our consent decree to justify terminating academic research earlier this week," Levine wrote.

"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."

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Photo: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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