A developer named Louis Barclay said Facebook permanently banned his account in response to a browser extension he created. The extension, called simply Unfollow Everything, made Facebook less addictive by helping users automatically unfollow everything in their News Feeds, Barclay said, and was also being used by Swiss researchers to study the connection between Facebook use and happiness.
At the time, Barclay said, the extension had about 13,000 downloads and about 2,500 weekly active users. Barclay, who runs another tech startup and built Unfollow Everything as an unpaid side project, told Protocol he noticed he was banned from Facebook hours before he received the letter or learned the reason why. "I felt like maybe something really bad was going to happen, like maybe I was going to go broke because Facebook was going to sue me or something like that," Barclay remembered.
That hasn't happened, but the incident does add to mounting evidence about how Facebook often enforces its terms of service against developers who seek to study or to improve upon the Facebook experience. Researchers at New York University were similarly barred from the platform after creating a browser extension that collected targeting information from Facebook political ads. Facebook charged the researchers with violating their terms against data scraping, which Facebook argues were put in place to protect user privacy.
Facebook didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.
Barclay's story, which he shared for the first time Thursday in an essay on Slate, comes on the heels of whistleblower Frances Haugen's testimony before the Senate Tuesday, in which she called on Congress to require more data transparency of tech companies so researchers and lawmakers can actually study platforms like Facebook without relying on leaks. "Facebook hides behind walls that keep researchers and regulators from understanding the true dynamics of their system," Haugen said. "Facebook will tell you privacy means they can't give you data — this is not true."
Facebook has at times cited its past settlement with the FTC as evidence of why it must keep user data under lock and key. But after Facebook leaned on that rationale to justify its crackdown on the NYU team, FTC acting director Samuel Levine said that insinuation is "inaccurate."
"The FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission," Levine wrote. "Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising."
Rep. Lori Trahan has introduced legislation that would require social media companies to give more data to academics, and Stanford professor Nate Persily has floated a similar idea.
As a non-academic, Barclay wouldn't necessarily benefit from those laws. But Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney at Knight First Amendment Institute who is advising Barclay, said Congress should also take a closer look at how tech companies are "squashing user choice, including through heavy-handed terms of service."
For now, Barclay is short on legal options. As a U.K. citizen, he would be required to pay the other side's legal fees should he sue and lose, a risk he said he's not willing to take. "I'd like to try to get some kind of justice," he said. "I'm still not clear on how to do it."