Facebook Suspends Accounts of Team Investigating Political Ads

Facebook has suspended the accounts of members of Cybersecurity for Democracy, a research-based team at New York University (NYU) meant to investigate “online threats,” on the grounds of data scraping.

The move cut off the team’s access to Facebook’s Ad Library data and Crowdtangle, which is a public insights tool that is used to analyze public content on Facebook.

It remains to be seen whether the matter will be sent to Facebook’s Oversight Board for review.

Laura Edelson, a member of the team, said that over the last several years, their team used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, identify misinformation in political ads and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation.

“By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work. Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project … Including our work measuring vaccine misinformation with the Virality Project and many other partners who rely on our data,” Edelson tweeted.

A justification

Mike Clark, Product Management Director at Facebook, said in a statement that the NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political ads using unauthorized means, in violation of the Terms of Service.

“We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order,” Facebook said. 

According to the statement, the researchers used a browser extension to gather data. This extension was programmed to evade Facebook’s detection systems and scrape data such as usernames, ads and links to user profiles, some of which is not publicly-viewable on Facebook. 

“The extension also collected data about Facebook users who did not install it or consent to the collection. The researchers had previously archived this information in a now offline, publicly-available database,” Facebook added.

On the other hand, however, Ryan Mac, a tech reporter for New York Times, pointed out that Facebook penalized the NYU project for alleged data scraping. But it did not impose penalties on Clearview AI, a facial recognition software provider that has been accused of using data scraping techniques. 

Notably, Clearview AI is financially backed by Facebook board member Peter Thiel, who invested $500,000 in Facebook in 2004 and now owns a minority stake in the company. Representatives of several social media companies said their policies prohibit Clearview AI’s scraping, and Twitter said it explicitly banned use of its data for facial recognition.

Thiel reportedly advised Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to stay the course in its controversial policy on political ads, arguing that the company should continue to accept ads without fact checking them, Vanity Fair reported. Thiel has reportedly exerted influence on other political matters facing the platform. He also advised Zuckerberg against an outside advisory board to analyse Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Notably, Facebook urged Clearview AI to stop using data scraping techniques, but it’s response has been more lukewarm as compared to its reaction to the NYU project. Facebook has not sent legal notice for Clearview AI’s policies, despite it posing as just as much of a threat (if not more) to user privacy than the NYU project. 

Previous warnings

Facebook demanded AdObservatory, a project of Cybersecurity for Democracy, to stop collecting data about it’s political ad-targeting through its AdObserver extension, which monitors transparency behind political ads.

The NYU Ad Observatory was launched last September by NYU’s engineering school and recruited over 6,500 volunteers to use the special browser extension to collect data about Facebook’s political ads. In October 2020, Facebook, which hadn’t given permission for the project, said the program violated its terms of service.

A Facebook official sent a letter to the Ad Observatory researchers on October 16th, threatening enforcement action, saying that “scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us.” 

Facebook said it could change its own code to block the NYU team from collecting further data, a Facebook spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal.

Notably, however, the NYU group had discovered the previous week that Facebook was not labeling all political ads to show who had paid for them as its own disclosure rules require, BuzzFeed News reported. This was just one in aa row of incidents that brought Facebook’s transparency and privacy policies into question. Ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, users of the social media platform have been concerned about the vast repository of data Facebook utilises to show targeted ads. Despite massive privacy concerns, most recently about Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s controversial new policy, Facebook remains largely ineffective at creating inclusive and transparent policies for its users. 

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