Democrats press Facebook over suspension of researchers' accounts

Democrats press Facebook over suspension of researchers' accounts
© Greg Nash

Democratic senators are pressing Facebook over its decision to suspend the accounts of New York University (NYU) researchers who created a tool to analyze political ads and the spread of misinformation on the platform. 

Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOn The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Schumer, McConnell headed for another collision over voting rights Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE (Minn.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerFill the Eastern District of Virginia  GOP tries to take filibuster pressure off Manchin, Sinema Manchin signals he won't support filibuster carveout for debt hike MORE (Va.) and Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' Who is afraid of the EU's carbon border adjustment plan? MORE (Del.) wrote a letter to Facebook Monday asking for details regarding the platform’s decision to suspend the accounts and effectively cut off the researchers’ work looking into the spread of misinformation on Facebook. 

They underscored their message by noting a letter the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent to Facebook calling the platform’s explanation for suspending the accounts due to its agreement to the agency “inaccurate.” 

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“We were surprised to learn that Facebook has terminated access to its platform for researchers connected with the NYU Ad Observatory project. The opaque and unregulated online advertising platforms that social media companies maintain have allowed a hotbed of disinformation and consumer scams to proliferate, and we need to find solutions to those problems,” the senators wrote, according to a copy of the letter shared with The Hill. 

Facebook last week suspended the accounts of researchers Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, who had created the Ad Observer tool. The tool allowed Facebook users to voluntarily share limited anonymous information about political ads shown to them by the platform and allows researchers and journalists to follow trends in Facebook political advertising. 

Facebook had sent the researchers a cease-and-desist letter demanding they discontinue the tool and take down results of prior research last year, two weeks before the 2020 presidential election. 

But the platform did not act on its demands until last week. According to the Knight First Amendment Institute, which is representing the researchers in this matter, Facebook took action just hours after Edelson told the platform the researchers were studying the spread of misinformation about Jan. 6. 

Facebook’s product management director Mark Clark in a blog post said the company suspended the accounts because the tool used “unauthorized means to access and collect data” in violation of the platform’s terms of services. He also said Facebook had to take action “in line with our privacy program under the FTC order.”

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

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.” 

But the FTC later fired back at Facebook in a letter accusing the company of sharing an “inaccurate” 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,”  the FTC’s acting director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, Samuel Levine, wrote. 

The Democratic senators in their letter press Facebook to detail why it did not first contact the FTC, as well as if the platform maintains that the consent decree or other FTC orders required it to disable access for the researchers' tool. 

“While we agree that Facebook must safeguard user privacy, it is similarly imperative that Facebook allow credible academic researchers and journalists like those involved in the Ad Observatory project to conduct independent research that will help illuminate how the company can better tackle misinformation, disinformation, and other harmful activity that is proliferating on its platforms,” the Democrats wrote.