Facebook Demands Halt To Ad Targeting Research

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Facebook tells New York University researchers to stop collecting data on how it targets political ads, with days to go before US election

Facebook has demanded that New York University halt a project aimed at studying the way the social network targets political ads, only days before the US presidential election.

NYU’s Ad Observatory, launched in September by NYU’s engineering school, draws on the experiences of some 6,500 volunteers, who use a special browser extension that monitors which political ads they are shown.

The university said it aims to provide journalists, policy makers and researchers with an impartial view into which ads Facebook displays to whom.

But Facebook said the project violates its policies on data-scraping and is a violation of users’ privacy.

White HouseData scraping

“Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us,” Facebook privacy official Allison Hendrix wrote in a 16 October letter to NYU, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Hendrix said the university could be “subject to additional enforcement action” unless it ends the project and deletes the data it has collected.

Data scraping is a sensitive issue for Facebook, which faced intense criticism following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The move comes amidst heightened scrutiny of the role social media plays in influencing elections.

After Twitter banned all political advertising last year, Facebook implemented more modest measures, saying it will accept no new political ads in the week leading up to the 3 November US presidential election.

Facebook said it will also stop accepting political ads indefinitely after the election, to prevent paid ads seeking to influence public opinion on the election outcome, mirroring a similar policy implemented by Google.


Facebook launched an archive of political ads following controversy around the 2016 US elections, but NYU said its research has uncovered ads that should have been included in the archive and were not.

In its archive Facebook includes information about who paid for an ad, when it ran and the geographic location of people who saw it, but doesn’t specify how the ads are targeted.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, an advocate for more transparency in political advertising, told the Journal it was “unacceptable” for Facebook to be “making it harder for Americans to get information about online political ads”.

Facebook says it offers more transparency into political ads than traditional media or other social networks.

NYU said it has already gathered data on more than 200,000 ads and does not intend to stop the programme.