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Facebook fights NYU political ad research project, argues it violates the site's data collection policies

Facebook fights NYU political ad research project, argues it violates the site's data collection policies
© JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook is fighting a New York University (NYU) research project over its data on political ad targeting practices, demanding that the program cease collecting any more information without its permission.

The feud revolves around the NYU Ad Observatory, which has recruited thousands of volunteers to collect information about political ads Facebook shows to users.

Facebook wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to the program obtained by The Hill that the project breaks its rules regarding collecting data in bulk.

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“Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us,” wrote Facebook privacy policy official Allison Hendrix. "We understand the intent behind your tool. However, the browser plugin scrapes information in violation of our terms, which are designed to protect people's privacy."

If the university doesn’t end the project and delete the data it has collected by Nov. 30, she wrote, it may "be subject to additional enforcement action.” Facebook is also asking that any marketing surrounding the tool also be removed.

The letter was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Researchers with the NYU project and outside supporters pushed back against the letter, saying their project is a crucial tool to provide transparency amid concerns over the spread of disinformation and foreign election meddling, which was prominent on social media platforms in 2016.

“Transparency is essential, given the contention and disinformation coursing through our current election cycle. Political ad mis and disinformation is a cybersecurity vulnerability for our democracy. We developed Ad Observatory and the Ad Observer plug in to deliver an essential level of cybersecurity analysis that is otherwise unavailable to the public, and which makes clear who is trying to influence us and why,” said lead researcher Laura Edelson.

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“Frankly it’s shocking that Facebook is trying to suppress research into political disinformation in the
lead-up to the election. There’s really no question more urgent right now than the question of how Facebook’s decisions are shaping and perhaps distorting political discourse. It would be terrible for democracy if Facebook is allowed to be the gatekeeper to journalism and research about Facebook,” added Alex Abdo, litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

The dispute comes amid intense scrutiny over political advertising on social media and the spread of disinformation online ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Facebook has taken steps to rein in the spread of disinformation by barring new political ads before Election Day and suspend all political ads indefinitely starting the evening of Nov. 3 to prevent false information from spreading regarding the election’s results. It also runs an archive of ads on its platform, which Hendrix touted as an effective tracking tool.

"Our aim is to offer privacy-protective tools to journalists and researchers, which is one of the reasons we built the Ad Library, Ad Library API, and Ad Library Report. We continue to develop these tools, to help people better understand our products, and to hold us accountable when we get things wrong," she wrote to the researchers. "We're committed to both transparency and privacy, which means we often need to find new ways to solve problems. And, as you know, we always welcome your expertise in this space, should you have any recommendations about how to achieve both aims."

The tech giant is still facing blowback from what critics say was a lack of transparency in the 2016 cycle, and observers are still closely monitoring what pieces of information mushroom across the platform and other social media sites. 

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Facebook maintained it is looking to boost transparency in the lead-up to the elections but said it could change its code to block the NY researchers from collecting data. The program has already collected data on more than 200,000 ads.

“We informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms,” Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said in a statement to The Hill. "Our Ad Library, which is accessed by more than 2 million people every month, including NYU, already provides more transparency into political and issue advertising than TV, radio or any other digital ad platform."

The issue of outside access to Facebook data is a touchy subject for the tech behemoth, which was burned in 2016 after Cambridge Analytica obtained unauthorized access to Facebook user data and used it for political profiling, sparking an avalanche of concerns over user privacy.