According to the latest news, Facebook has banned the personal accounts of academicians who researched ad transparency and the spread of misinformation on the social network. Facebook is saying the group violated its term of service by scraping user data without permission. However, the academicians differ. According to them, they have been forcefully silenced for exposing problems on Facebook’s platform.
The researchers were part of NYU Ad Observatory project which was created to examine the origin and spread of political ads on Facebook. Back in May, the group explained in a blog post that their aim is to uncover who pays for political ads. Their ad had important implications for understanding the spread of disinformation on Facebook.
The researchers created a browser plug-in called Ad Observer to collect data automatically on what political ads users are being shown and why those ads are being targeted to them. The website says the plug-in does not collect any personally identifying information such as users’ name, Facebook ID number, or friend lists. Data collected in this way was made publicly available to researchers and journalists.
Note that Facebook offers some information voluntarily through its Ad Library. Facebook does not share data on how ads are targeted based on users’ interests but people can find it for themselves by clicking on ads they are being shown.
Laura Edelson, an NYU researcher whose personal account was banned by Facebook said “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. If this episode demonstrates anything it is that Facebook should not have veto power over who is allowed to study them.”
On the other hand, Facebook has clarified that it has banned the researchers because they violated the social network’s terms of service and because the Ad Observer plug-in “collected data about Facebook users who did not install or consent to the collection.” It seems the researchers were collecting data about private individuals without consent but, according to a Protocol report, Facebook is referring to “advertisers’ accounts.
Facebook has good reason to be wary of third parties collecting data so the company banned the NYC researchers and disabled their associated Pages and platform access. Jonathan Mayer, a privacy expert who is a professor at Princeton University said on Twitter that “Facebook’s legal argument is bogus.”