The US commerce regulator has accused Facebook of making misleading claims over privacy in its dispute with New York University (NYU) researchers.
Samuel Levine, acting director of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection division, said Facebook had wrongly insinuated that a 2019 settlement with the FTC required Facebook to revoke the researchers’ access to its platform.
At the time Facebook product management director Mike Clark said the researchers had obtained user data without consent and violated the company’s terms of service.
He said the company had disabled their accounts “to stop unauthorised scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy programme under the FTC order”.
Facebook clarified in a later interview with Wired that the FTC order did not itself force the company to suspend the researchers’ accounts, but required the company to have a “comprehensive privacy programme”, and it was this programme that prohibited the NYU research.
Levine acknowledged that Facebook had corrected the record, but told Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg in a letter that he was “disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter”.
He said that contrary to what Facebook had suggested, the FTC “supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising” and that the privacy mandate allows Facebook to make exceptions “for good-faith research in the public interest”.
“We hope that the company is not invoking privacy — much less the FTC consent order — as a pretext to advance other aims,” Levine wrote.
The NYU programme allowed volunteers to install an Ad Observer browser extension that analysed the ads they were offered and provided the data for research purposes.
The programme focuses on misleading political ads, misinformation and false claims about vaccinations and Covid-19.
Following Facebook’s decision the programme attracted the support of Senator Ron Wyden, chairman of the US Senate Finance Committee and Senator Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who called the action “deeply concerning”.
British MP Damian Collins, who as former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee led its investigation into Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, said the company was “protecting its own interests” in blocking independent scrutiny.
“To say that it’s to protect users’ data is laughable,” Collins said.
Mozilla, which makes the Firefox browser, said it reviewed the Ad Observer extension’s code and found it did not collect excessive data.
“It collects ads, targeting parameters and metadata associated with the ads,” the company said.
“It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers”.