NYU research prompts Facebook to disable personal accounts  

workbench with multiple laptops
Elizabeth Quinn

10th August 2021

 

This week, Facebook moved to shut down the personal accounts of academics who were researching how advertisements are targeted on the platform. Allegedly, these accounts were removed in order to protect privacy, however, it has been viewed by the academic community as silencing independent research into the company.  

 

Facebook’s main income revenue is created by advertising. Advertisers on the platform have the ability to target specific sections of society. This gives advertisers the possibility to target specific sections of society in differing ways. This has the potential to affect democracies as it provides the opportunity to send opposing messages to differing sections of society. 

 

Due to these risks, Facebook has been pressured by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and researchers to provide more transparency in relation to the business model of targeted ads. In response to these calls, Facebook has created “Ad Libraries.” These libraries allow researchers to search ads currently being run or that have previously run on the platform. The Facebook Ad Library, however, lacks the information that the New York University (NYU) researchers seek out- how the ads are particularly targeted to different demographics.  

 

In order to gather information on Facebook targeting practices, the researchers in NYU created “Ad Observer.” This is a web browser extension that people can download voluntarily. When users download the extension, they agree to share the ads that they see on Facebook along with the information in the “Why am I seeing this ad” option that may accessed under every Facebook ad. Facebook have claimed that this extension “scrapes” data, and therefore is not in line with privacy protection. 

 

“By suspending the accounts of the researchers, Facebook is ultimately blocking them from working on the Ad Observatory, which helps in the examination of political ad data.”

On August 3, Facebook suspended the account of NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy leader, Laura Edelson, along with the accounts of people associated with the project and team at NYU. This move is said to come hours after Edelson informed the platform that she was studying the spread of disinformation in relation to the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6 of this year. By suspending the accounts of the researchers, Facebook is ultimately blocking them from working on the Ad Observatory, which helps in the examination of political ad data.  

 

The “Ad Observer” tool has been independently audited by Mozilla which has stated that the privacy of users is not compromised when using the browser extension – “It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers.” Thus, the argument that the tool is one that is diametrically at odds with its users’ privacy is one that does not hold. Curiously, although Facebook argues that this tool is not in line with users’ privacy, they have not moved to shut it down – the Ad Observer remains available to download. 

 

On the issue of privacy, Edelson stated “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.” 

 

Another argument that Facebook has made is that it is not the privacy of the extension users who are at risk, rather it is the privacy of the advertisers. However, the advertisements are already in a public sphere so this argument is hard to comprehend. Indeed, Seth Berlin, partner at the law firm Ballard Spahr, has stated that the claim that political advertising is private is “truly remarkable” due to the fact that “the whole point of advertising is that it is intended to be public.” 

 

Facebook, in its statement also argued that the move to shut down the accounts was in order to remain within the consent decree required by Federal Trade Commission, a data privacy agreement. However, lawyers, politicians, and the FTC itself have stated that Facebook is not required to shut down the work under the consent decree. The FCT stated that the argument Facebook made was “inaccurate” and that the company can create exceptions for good faith research in the public interest under the Order – which is what the researchers were doing. Although the FTC says that Facebook has acknowledged that its argument based on the Order is inaccurate, they state “we hope that the company is not invoking privacy – much less the FTC consent order – as a pretext to advance other aims.” 

 

When this argument fell short, Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne stated that it was not the FTC’s consent decree which required the accounts to be shut down but rather the condition that Facebook have a “comprehensive privacy program.” What is included in this privacy programme is up to Facebook, meaning that Facebook can call the shots. There is no requirement that Facebook prohibit independent research in its terms but it seems unthinkable that it would do so voluntarily. This privacy programme essentially allows Facebook to draw the line where it sees fit.  Under its own terms, Facebook can silence people who are conducting important research, which has shown the company in an unflattering light. 

 

This incident has clearly shown that legislation is needed in order to force large tech companies like Facebook to provide information on how its targeted ads function. In the US, the introduction of a new bill would force Facebook to create databases for its ads, including targeting data. At another level, a debate has also begun on whether transparency is the answer or whether a ban on targeting persons based on tracking their online presence should be the answer due to the effects it has not only on individuals, but also for society. 

 

The Ad Observer extension may be downloaded here.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Marvin Meyer

This article was supported by: STAND Programme Assistant Alex

 

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