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Facebook asks academics to stop using tool in micro-targeting ad research

Facebook asks academics to stop using tool in micro-targeting ad research
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Facebook is demanding that researchers at New York University disable a tool used to collect information on who receives micro-targeted political advertisements on the social media platform, with the company arguing that the tool violates company policy. 

According to The Associated Press, Facebook executive Allison Hendrix wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to the researchers that they must disable a special plug-in for Chrome and Firefox browsers used by 6,500 volunteers across the United States and to delete the data already obtained since the tool’s September launch.

The plug-in, called “Ad Observer,” enables researchers to analyze the advertisements that are sent to specific volunteers and how advertisers use data gathered by Facebook to profile citizens “and send them misinformation about candidates and policies that are designed to influence or even suppress their vote,” Damon McCoy, an NYU professor involved in the project, said in a statement to the AP. 

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Facebook sends user information to advertisers so they may tailor ads to specific groups based on race, age, gender, political affiliation and several other characterizations. 

However, Hendrix argued in the letter that the research tool violates Facebook’s policy against the automated bulk collection of data from its platform. 

The executive also threatened “additional enforcement action” if the tool is not removed by Nov. 30, according to the AP. 

Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said in an email to the AP Saturday that the company “informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill. 

The tool has also been used by local reporters in states such as Wisconsin, Utah and Florida to report on political ads ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election. 

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Ramya Krishnan, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which is representing the researchers, told the AP that it was “alarming” that “Facebook is trying to shut down a tool crucial to exposing disinformation in the run up to one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history.” 

“The public has a right to know what political ads are being run and how they are being targeted,” Krishnan added. “Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to be the gatekeeper to information necessary to safeguard our democracy.”

Facebook created a public ad archive that allows people to see who paid for ads following claims of the platform’s lack of transparency on ads that ran in the lead up to the 2016 election. However, the company does not share information on which users receive particular ads.