Protocol | Policy

NYU researchers speak out after Facebook disables their accounts

Facebook disabled the accounts of researchers behind tools that collect information on political ads running on Facebook.

NYU researchers speak out after Facebook disables their accounts

Flags fly from a New York University building.

Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/GettyImages

On Tuesday, Facebook suspended the accounts, apps and pages of several New York University researchers who have been using scraping tools to better understand political ads and disinformation on Facebook.

The tools were the subject of a long-running standoff between the social network, which claimed scraping violates its terms of service, and the researchers, who argued that more digital advertising transparency is essential to understanding and protecting elections. Bloomberg first reported on the suspensions.

"The work our team does to make data about disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy," Laura Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate and the lead researcher on the Cybersecurity for Democracy project, wrote in a statement. "Facebook is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform."

Mike Clark, Facebook's product management director, explained the company's stance in a blog post, saying the company took these actions in fulfillment of its consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, which requires stricter monitoring of third-party apps. "We made it clear in a series of posts earlier this year," he wrote, "that we take unauthorized data scraping seriously, and when we find instances of scraping we investigate and take action to protect our 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."

The tool in question is a browser extension called Ad Observer, which Facebook users can download if they want to send information about the Facebook ads they see to the researchers. Ad Observer scrapes the information those users see when they click "Why am I seeing this ad?" — a workaround that's necessary because Facebook does not share information on who advertisers targeted in its public-facing ad archive. In the blog post, Clark accused the team of using the extension to collect data "about Facebook users who did not install it or consent to the collection."

It's an accusation that evokes the worst of the Cambridge Analytica scraping scandal, but one that leaves out key details that Protocol revealed earlier this year in a story about Facebook's dispute with the NYU researchers and the fraught relationship between platforms and researchers generally. The users who had data collected without their consent aren't private users: They're advertisers, whose ads are by definition already public, and whose information Facebook stores itself in an ad archive.

That, the NYU researchers argue, makes Facebook's privacy rationale suspect. "Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest," said Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at NYU and one of the affected researchers. "Facebook should not be able to cynically invoke user privacy to shut down research that puts them in an unflattering light, particularly when the 'users' Facebook is talking about are advertisers who have consented to making their ads public."

This story has been updated with additional details from Facebook's blog post.

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