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Facebook censured by US trade commission for suspending researchers’ accounts

Facebook Inc updates

The Federal Trade Commission publicly castigated Facebook on Thursday for disabling researchers’ access to its social media platform and making “misleading claims” that it was doing so to comply with a privacy agreement with the US agency. 

Facebook had suspended the accounts and pages this week belonging to a group of researchers at New York University who were studying its political advertising targeting practices. It argued that it took the action “to protect people’s privacy” in line with a consent decree it agreed with the FTC in 2019. 

But in a letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Samuel Levine, the FTC’s acting director of the bureau of consumer protection, lambasted the social media company for not consulting with the agency beforehand to establish if the decree should be applied this way and labelled its claims as “inaccurate”. 

“Had you honoured your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest,” Levine wrote. 

“Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising.” 

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment. 

The spat marked the latest escalation of tensions between Facebook and the FTC, after the social media company last month requested that Lina Khan, its new chair and a prominent critic of Big Tech companies, step back from deciding whether to pursue an antitrust case against it.

The NYU Ad Observatory launched an initiative last year encouraging volunteers to download a browser extension that allowed their researchers to collect data on the political advertising shown to them on Facebook. The research was focused in particular on trends in ad funding, targeting and misinformation on the platform. About 16,000 volunteers signing up.

However, Facebook on Wednesday claimed the academics had used “unauthorised means” to scrape the data, invoking a consent decree that it agreed as part of a $5bn settlement with the FTC after the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal.

After having their access to the ad data severed, the NYU academics accused Facebook of deliberately “silencing” them for exposing problems on the platform.

While the FTC’s Levine said that Facebook had since “corrected the record” to acknowledge that the consent decree did not compel it to remove the researchers, he added: “We hope that the company is not invoking privacy — much less the FTC consent order — as a pretext to advance other aims . . . I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter.”

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