NEWS6 August 2021

Facebook criticised after blocking political advertising research

News North America Privacy

US – Facebook has faced criticism from senior politicians in the US and UK after it blocked access to university researchers examining political advertising on the social media platform.

Facebook 1_crop

In a blog post by Mike Clark, product management director at Facebook, confirmed the company had disabled the apps, pages and platform access associated with New York University’s Ad Observatory Project and its operators.

The university’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project, which runs the observatory, was studying political advertising on Facebook’s platform, but the company claimed the university had used “unauthorised means” to access and collect data from the platform.

Researchers at New York University have denied Facebook’s accusations and accused it of trying to avoid legitimate scrutiny.

Facebook said the research involved gathering data by creating a browser extension that was programmed to evade detection systems and scrape data such as usernames, ads, links to user profiles and “why am I seeing this ad?” information.

The social media company added that the extension also collected data about Facebook users who did not install it or provide consent.

“Collecting data via scraping is an industry-wide problem that jeopardises people’s privacy, and we’ve been clear about our public position on this,” Clark wrote.

“Today’s action doesn’t change our commitment to providing more transparency around ads on Facebook or our ongoing collaborations with academia.

“We’ll continue to provide ways for responsible researchers to conduct studies that are in the public interest while protecting the security of our platform and the privacy of people who use it.”

Members of the university’s Cybersecurity for Democracy team said in a statement that they used Ad Observer, a browser plugin that allows consenting Facebook users to voluntarily share with the researchers limited and anonymous information about the political ads shown to them by Facebook.

The tool enables researchers and journalists to follow trends in Facebook political advertising through a public-facing website.

Cybersecurity for Democracy said it had informed Facebook hours before the blockings that it intended to examine the spread of disinformation on the platform in the lead up to the 6th January attack on the US congress.

Laura Edelman, lead researcher behind New York University’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project, 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.

“Worst of all, Facebook is using user privacy, a core belief that we have always put first in our work, as a pretext for doing this. If this episode demonstrates anything it’s that Facebook should not have veto power over who is allowed to study them.”

Facebook’s decision has been criticised by senior politicians in both the UK and US, as well as other tech firms.

Mozilla, the company behind the Firefox browser, also criticised Facebook in a blog post by Marshall Erwin, senior director of trust and security at Mozilla.

“Facebook claims the accounts were shut down due to privacy problems with the Ad Observer,” Erwin wrote. 

“In our view, those claims simply do not hold water. We know this, because before encouraging users to contribute data to the Ad Observer, which we’ve done repeatedly, we reviewed the code ourselves.”

Damian Collins, Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe and former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said on Twitter that Facebook was avoiding independent scrutiny.

“Facebook is closing down legitimate academic research into targeted advertising on its platform,” Collins wrote.

“This shows once again that they are more concerned about protecting their interests than allowing independent scrutiny of how their ad tools are used and abused.”

US senators Ron Wyden and Mark Warner also criticised the social media business’ decision to block access to the Cybersecurity for Democracy team.