Facebook, NYU researchers tussle over political ads on the social network


Angela Lang/CNET

Researchers at a major US university are in a face-off with Facebook over a project they launched to surface information about political ads on the social network.

The company sent a letter last week to researchers behind the NYU Ad Observatory platform, part of New York University’s Online Political Transparency Project, saying the researchers must halt efforts to collect data off of Facebook.

A browser-extension tool created for the Ad Observatory lets volunteers anonymously share data about the political ads they’re being served on Facebook, to “increase understanding of how political advertisers target audiences and promote messages,” says the observatory’s web site. 

The Ad Observatory site and database make it easier “for people to see who is purchasing ads on Facebook and in what volume, as well as trends in how they are deployed in major political races across the country,” says NYU’s Online Political Transparency Project. That’s important, it adds, because Facebook isn’t subject to the same federal rules that “govern broadcast and print ads and ensure they are accurate and disclose their source.”

“Local reporters from Wisconsin to Utah to Florida and more” have used the Ad Observatory database “to write stories about the upcoming election,” says a release from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

But an Oct. 16 letter to the observatory researchers, from a Facebook privacy policy official, says the browser extension and its data collection violate the social network’s rules.

“Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us,” the letter says, according to reports this week in The Wall Street Journal and The Hill. The letter adds that the researchers must end the project and delete the collected data or face “additional enforcement action.” The researchers have till Nov. 30 to comply.

Read more: Want to learn about Trump or Biden? Maybe stay away from Facebook and Twitter

Facebook has its own public database, the Ad Library, that it says lets people search for and find information about political ads.

The library “already provides more transparency into political and issue advertising than TV, radio or any other digital ad platform,” Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said in a statement. “We informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms,” Osborne said. 

Facebook has had to be careful with how it manages the data of its users, particularly following 2018’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which an outside firm harvested information from 50 million Facebook accounts without their permission. That scandal led to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg being called before Congress to testify about the social network’s data privacy policies. And it played a part in Facebook agreeing, last year, to pay a $5 billion fine to the US Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations. Under that settlement, Facebook must certify that it’s taking steps to protect user privacy.

News about Facebook’s Ad Observatory letter also comes as Election Day looms in the US presidential race and intense scrutiny is being brought to bear on social networks and the misinformation found on them. Last month, Facebook said it will block new political ads in the week before the Nov. 3 election, since there may not be enough time to contest claims made in them.

“Our aim is to offer privacy-protective tools to journalists and researchers, which is one of the reasons we built the Ad Library, Ad Library API, and Ad Library Report. We continue to develop these tools, to help people better understand our products, and to hold us accountable when we get things wrong,” Facebook said in its letter to the Ad Observatory researchers, according to The Hill. “We’re committed to both transparency and privacy, which means we often need to find new ways to solve problems. And, as you know, we always welcome your expertise in this space, should you have any recommendations about how to achieve both aims.”

The Ad Observatory researchers say their browser extension doesn’t collect personal data. And the Online Political Transparency Project says the observatory database is needed “to close gaps in Facebook’s own data stream,” such as the social network’s Ad Library API and Reports.

Ramya Krishna, a staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute, agrees.

“Independent research is crucial to understanding Facebook and the powerful influence it exerts on our democracy,” Krishna said in a statement. “Journalists and researchers who want to study Facebook shouldn’t be limited to the tools and data that Facebook deigns to make available. Those tools and data are defined by Facebook’s interests — not the public’s.”

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