Facebook asked to ease data rules for journalists, researchers

Facebook asked to ease data rules for journalists, researchers
© Getty Images

Advocates for the First Amendment are asking Facebook to ease restrictions on journalists and scholars gathering user data for research.

In a letter Monday, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University asked Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFacebook announces tens of thousands of app suspensions after internal audit On The Money: Trump downplays urgency of China trade talks | Chinese negotiators cut US trip short in new setback | Trump sanctions Iran's national bank | Survey finds Pennsylvania, Wisconsin lost the most factory jobs in past year Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts MORE to change the company's user agreement to allow researchers to use fake accounts and automated data gathering tools that are otherwise banned.

“Facebook has a singular influence on public discourse in the United States and globally,” the letter said. “Digital journalism and research are crucial to the public’s understanding of Facebook’s platform and its influence on our society."


The institute said the current user agreement restricts researchers from studying the platform and analyzing its data. The letter acknowledged that Facebook has never taken legal action against a journalist or researcher for violating its user agreement, but it noted that there have been “multiple instances” in which “Facebook has instructed journalists or researchers to discontinue important investigative projects” because they violated the terms of service.

The institute highlighted examples of research that could not be legally conducted under the current Facebook terms of service. The letter argued the analysis by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that uncovered the reach of Russian misinformation would not have been possible if Facebook fully enforced its terms.

Facebook recently has cracked down on data violations following the disclosures about Russian efforts to spread misinformation on the platform during the 2016 election and the harvesting of user data by consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

The group, though, insisted their proposed changes would not threaten user privacy if Facebook kept in place restrictions from selling collected data. Temporary research accounts would also be required to identify themselves.

Researchers would only be allowed to disclose information that “readily identifies” users “if the public interest of disclosure clearly outweighs the private interest of the user.”

The letter did not detail examples but suggested that data concerning a public figure or showing a user engaged in unlawful activity could meet the standard.

The institute asked Facebook to respond by Sept. 7, 2018.