Facebook’s recent decision to suspend an academic study about political ads quickly drew outcry from U.S. lawmakers.
The social media company thought it was a good idea to disable personal accounts and prevent general access for multiple New York University (NYU) researchers on Aug. 3. BL understands the study team was trying to investigate user privacy concerns about misinformation and political ads on the social networking platform.
Democrat Sens. Chris Coons (Del.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Mark Warner (Va.) expressed concern about the suspension in a joint letter addressed to the company. They demanded that Facebook answers for its actions.
“How many researchers or journalists have had their accounts disabled this year, why, and how was Facebook changing its terms of service to better accommodate research?” the letter said according to Reuters.
The company has until August 20 to officially respond. For now, it referred press enquiries to its existing agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC previously sued the social media company for allegedly violating privacy and antitrust law back in 2019 and 2020.
“Researchers gathered data by creating a browser extension that was programmed to evade our detection systems and scrape data such as usernames, ads, links to user profiles, and ‘Why am I seeing this ad?’ information,” a representative said in a statement. “[Some of this information] is not publicly viewable on Facebook.”
However, the academics vigorously deny they collected private information with the Ad Observer plugin.
“We really do not collect anything that is not an ad, that is not public,” they said according to the National Public Radio. “We are pretty careful about how we do it.”
The browser tool simply lets users gather political ad data, including advertiser accounts, their names and profile pictures according to Protocol.
“We will never ask for information that could identify you,” the software developer said on its website. “[This includes] your Facebook ID number, name, birthday, friend list … and how you interacted with ads–or anything else.”
The researchers believe their suspension was a commercially motivated decision, and amounted to little more than digital censorship.
“Facebook is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform,” NYU lead researcher Laura Edelson said in a statement. “[Making] data about disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy.”
NYU computer science associate professor Damon McCoy described the internet company’s actions as “disgraceful.”
“Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform,” he said in the statement. “Facebook should not be able to cynically invoke user privacy to shut down research that puts them in an unflattering light, particularly when the ‘users’ … are advertisers who have consented to making their ads public.”