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NYU researchers accuse Facebook of ‘silencing’ them after accounts disabled

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A group of researchers at New York University studying Facebook’s political advertising targeting practices has accused the social media company of “silencing” them after it severed their access to the platform.

The NYU Ad Observatory, part of the university’s Center for Cybersecurity, has since last year run a project whereby 16,000 volunteers downloaded a browser extension that allows them to collect data on the political advertising shown to those users on Facebook.

It aimed to uncover trends around ad funding and misinformation, and whether content was being microtargeted at certain demographics. The department is also part of a coalition of researchers studying coronavirus vaccine misinformation.

However, Facebook, which had not authorised the project, last year sent cease and desist letters to the researchers, urging them to end the data collection, citing privacy concerns.

Late on Tuesday, Facebook said in a blog post that it had “disabled the accounts, apps, Pages and platform access” associated with the project, including the personal accounts of the academics, for violating its terms of service.

In particular, it said the researchers’ browser extension scraped data that was not publicly viewable on the platform and information “about Facebook users who did not install it or consent to the collection”.

“We took these actions to stop unauthorised scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy programme,” Mike Clark, Facebook’s product management director, wrote in the post.

The social network has sought to better control the data that outsiders can access in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the data of 87m users was harvested by an academic and shared with the now-defunct political consultancy.

But critics argue that it has wielded privacy concerns in order to block responsible research into its platform. A separate Facebook-backed initiative to share data with social sciences academics in 2019 was also hampered by the company’s privacy worries.

Facebook has a public political ads transparency library that contains information such as who is behind political ads and how much was spent on them. However, it does not outline how ads were targeted at users, and the library itself has been faulty.

In a statement, Laura Edelson, the lead researcher of the Ad Observatory, accused Facebook of “silencing” her project for shining a light on problems on its platform, and said the group had “always put [user privacy] first in our work”.

“Over the last several years, we’ve used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, to identify misinformation in political ads including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation,” Edelson said. “By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work.”

Mark Warner, chair of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement that the NYU project had revealed “ads violating Facebook’s terms of service, ads for frauds and predatory financial schemes, and political ads that were improperly omitted from Facebook’s lacklustre Ad Library”.

He labelled the company’s decision “deeply concerning” and called for Congress to take action “to bring greater transparency to the shadowy world of online advertising”.

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