FTC hits Facebook over ‘inaccurate’ explanation for banning researchers

The Federal Trade Commission building in Washington, D.C., is seen on June 18
Greg Nash

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) slammed Facebook for sharing an “inaccurate” explanation after it suspended the accounts of researchers who have been critical of the platform. 

The agency’s acting director of Bureau Consumer Protection, Samuel Levine, sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday calling out the company for using what Levine deemed a misleading claim in its explanation. 

“Had you honored 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. Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising,” Levine wrote, according to a copy of the letter shared publicly by the FTC. 

The explanation in question stems from Facebook’s decision earlier this week to ban the accounts of New York University (NYU) researchers Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, who had created a tool called Ad Observatory to help assess political ads and the spread of misinformation on Facebook. 

Facebook’s product management director Mike Clark in a blog post said the company suspended the accounts because the tool used “unauthorized means to access and collect data” from the platform in a way that violated its terms of services. 

In the post, Clark also said the company took action to “stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order.”

The order refers to one the FTC imposed on Facebook in 2019, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The order calls for Facebook to obtain the user’s “affirmative express consent” before sharing data with a third party

But Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne later told Wired in an interview that the consent decree did not force Facebook to suspend the researcher’s account, rather it was Facebook’s requirement under the order to implement a “comprehensive privacy program.” 

The order, though, doesn’t necessarily limit Facebook from allowing for research such as the Ad Observer tool under its privacy program.

A Facebook spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment in response to the FTC’s letter.

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