Facebook Defends Cutting Off Researcher Access To Data

Facebook has become embroiled in a row with a group of New York University researchers (NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy), after it cut off their access to its data.

Members of the Cybersecurity for Democracy team, based at New York University, tweeted they had had their accounts shut down.

But they didn’t mention that Facebook has been repeatedly warning them that they had been violating its data collection policies for the best part of a year.

“This evening, Facebook suspended my Facebook account and the accounts of several people associated with Cybersecurity for Democracy, our team at NYU,” tweeted Laura Edelson. “This has the effect of cutting off our access to Facebook’s Ad Library data, as well as Crowdtangle.”

Scrapping data

But Facebook moved swiftly to respond to accusations that it was preventing researchers from access data.

“For months, we’ve attempted to work with New York University to provide three of their researchers the precise access they’ve asked for in a privacy protected way,” blogged Mike Clark, Facebook’s product management director.

“Today, we disabled the accounts, apps, Pages and platform access associated with NYU’s Ad Observatory Project and its operators after our repeated attempts to bring their research into compliance with our Terms,” wrote Clark.

“NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political ads using unauthorised means to access and collect data from Facebook, in violation of our Terms of Service,” wrote Clark. “We took these actions to stop unauthorised scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order.”

Clark said the researchers had gathered data by creating a browser extension that was programmed to evade its detection systems and scrape data such as usernames, ads, links to user profiles and “Why am I seeing this ad?” information, some of which is not publicly-viewable on Facebook.

Clark also said that the NYU 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, he noted.

Clark said that Facebook offers researchers a number of privacy-protective methods to collect and analyse data, and that the firm had told the researchers a year ago, in summer of 2020, that their Ad Observatory extension would violate Facebook’s Terms even before they launched the tool.

It followed this up in October 2020, when Facebook sent them a formal letter notifying them of the violation of our Terms of Service and granted them 45 days to comply with Facebook’s request to stop scraping data from our website.

The deadline ended on 30 November, long after Election Day.

Clark said Facebook continued to engage with the researchers on addressing our privacy concerns and offered them ways to obtain data that did not violate Facebook’s Terms.

“We made it clear in a series of posts earlier this year that we take unauthorised data scraping seriously, and when we find instances of scraping we investigate and take action to protect our platform,” wrote Clark. “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.”

“Collecting data via scraping is an industry-wide problem that jeopardizes people’s privacy, and we’ve been clear about our public position on this as recently as April,” wrote Clark. “The researchers knowingly violated our Terms against scraping – which we went to great lengths to explain to them over the past year.”

Clark said that Facebook’s action doesn’t change its commitment to providing more transparency around ads on Facebook or its ongoing collaborations with academia.

Facebook has created tools to improve transparency over advertising on its services, including its own Ad Library, a searchable online database showing the political ads on its site. But researchers have criticised the library for being incomplete and difficult to use.

Laura Edelson tweeted that Faceboook’s Ad Library contained ‘systemic flaws’.

Lawmaker intervention

Into this row, US Senator Mark Warner was quoted by Reuters as saying on Wednesday that Facebook’s move to disable the accounts of a group of New York University researchers who were studying political ads on its platform was “deeply concerning.”

Warner, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that the action was a step backward.

“This latest action by Facebook to cut off an outside group’s transparency efforts – efforts that have repeatedly facilitated revelations of ads violating Facebook’s terms of service, ads for frauds and predatory financial schemes, and political ads that were improperly omitted from Facebook’s lackluster Ad Library – is deeply concerning,” he said in a statement.

Warner added that Congress should act to deal with fraud and misconduct in online advertising.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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