NEWS16 August 2021

Calls for Facebook to make ad targeting data available to researchers

News North America Privacy Public Sector US Election

US – Over 250 researchers, technologists and citizens have called on Facebook to reinstate the accounts of two New York University (NYU) academics researching political advertising and misinformation.

Cracked phone screen showing Facebook logo alonsgide laptop and glasses

Facebook closed the personal accounts of researchers on the Cybersecurity for Democracy project on 3rd August, saying that their methods breached the company’s terms of service.

As well as reinstating the NYU team’s access, the group of researchers, technologists and citizens, in an open letter, has asked Facebook to make comprehensive, systematic ad targeting data available to independent researchers on a continuous basis and rewrite its terms of service and privacy policy to protect research in the public interest.

The group also called on companies in the wider technology industry to:

  • Join efforts to develop codes of conduct for providing responsible, ethical data access to independent researchers
  • Develop standards for research data interoperability and portability (for APIs, datasets, etc) that are reviewed and approved by organisations independent of platforms
  • Support and comply with universal digital ad transparency (make all ad data publicly accessible to researchers)
  • Support independent efforts, both public interest and commercial, on tools that improve transparency into content and advertising networks

Additionally, regulators should compel access to data for independent researchers, the group said, as well as prohibiting companies from creating policies forbidding responsible independent research.

NYU’s Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy developed a research tool, ‘Ad Observer’, that invites users to install a browser plugin that collects information about the ads a user sees, the advertisers who have paid for them, and the reasons a user was targeted to see those ads.

The project includes ‘Ad Observatory’, a website members of the public can use to explore trends in Facebook advertising. Without personal accounts, the researchers can no longer access Facebook’s Ad Library data.

Edelson, Ph.D. candidate in computer science at New York University Tandon School of Engineering and the lead researcher behind Cybersecurity for Democracy, said: “The work our team does to make data about disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy. Facebook is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform.”

Writing in a blog post, Facebook’s Mike Clark, product management director, said the ‘Ad Observatory’ project’s approach to studying political ads violated the platform’s terms of service, and that it had disabled the accounts and pages associated with the project to “stop unauthorised scraping and protect people’s privacy”.