Technology

Facebook’s ban of third-party researchers ‘deeply concerning’

Facebook is being criticized by politicians and researchers for banning the accounts of academics who analyzed political ads and misinformation on the social network.

In press statements, Senator Mark R. Warner (D-VA) said the company’s actions were “deeply concerning,” while Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said she was “deeply troubled” by the news. Creator of the Firefox browser, Mozilla, which conducted a privacy audit of the academics’ work, said Facebook’s justification for banning the researchers was “wrong.”

“Facebook claims the accounts were shut down due to privacy problems with the Ad Observer,” wrote Mozilla’s chief security officer Marshall Erwin in a blog post. “In our view, those claims simply do not hold water.”

The academics banned by Facebook worked with the NYU Ad Observatory, creating a browser plug-in called Ad Observer that Facebook users could install to collect data about what political ads they were shown and how they were targeted. Facebook does not provide equivalent information, says the NYU Ad Observatory, not least because, as the researchers have shown, the company sometimes fails to label political ads at all.

Facebook has defended its ban of NYU Ad Observatory accounts and pages by saying it’s protecting users’ privacy. It’s a not-unreasonable argument given that the Cambridge Analytica scandal sprung from third-party researchers scraping the site for user data. But critics say Facebook has got the details wrong. Mozilla, which examined the code and consent flow of the Ad Observer plug-in, is adamant that it presents no privacy threat.

As Mozilla’s Marshall Erwin wrote in a blog post (emphasis his):

We decided to recommend Ad Observer because our reviews assured us that it respects user privacy and supports transparency. It collects ads, targeting parameters and metadata associated with the ads. It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers. The extension also allows you to see what data has been collected by visiting the “My Archive” tab. It gives you the choice to opt in to sharing additional demographic information to aid research into how specific groups are being targeted, but even that is off by default.

As reported in Casey Newton’s Platformer newsletter, Facebook claims the plug-in may collect some information about third-parties. For example: ”If an individual pays to boost a post, such as for a fundraiser, information including that user’s name and photo winds up in the NYU researchers’ hands.” But as Newton notes: “In any of these cases, the actual harm to the user would seem to be extremely minor, if you can call it a harm at all.”

In a statement, Senator Warner said Facebook’s actions were exactly the wrong response to current worries about political ad transparency and misinformation on its platform.

“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,” said Warner. “For several years now, I have called on social media platforms like Facebook to work with, and better empower, independent researchers, whose efforts consistently improve the integrity and safety of social media platforms by exposing harmful and exploitative activity. Instead, Facebook has seemingly done the opposite.”