Facebook disables accounts tied to NYU’S research into political ads

On Tuesday Facebook announced that it had disabled accounts linked to a project run by New York University that analysed political ads on the social network, claiming that the researchers had accessed and collected data from Facebook users without consent.

The project, called NYU Ad Observatory, recruited more than 6,500 volunteers to use a specialist browser extension which monitored and collected data on the political ads they saw whilst using Facebook, and how those ads were targeted. Last October Facebook sent the researchers a cease-and-desist letter demanding that they stop collecting targeting data about Facebook’s political ads, threatening the researchers with “additional enforcement action.” Then on Tuesday Facebook disabled accounts, apps, Facebook pages and platform access for those associated with the project.

Lead researcher and computer science Ph.D. candidate, Laura Edelson, confirmed that her personal Facebook account had been suspended and that some of her colleagues had been disabled on Tuesday night. Edelson told the Wall Street Journal at the time that they would stop collecting the data if Facebook became more transparent about it, adding that by suspending the groups access the social media giant had effectively ended the NYU’s efforts to study misinformation in political advertising.

In a statement posted on Facebook’s website, Mike Clark, product management director, tried to justify the action, arguing “NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political ads using unauthorised means to access and collect data from Facebook, in violation of our Terms of Service.” According to the Facebook Terms of Service agreement, a user may not “access or collect data from our products using automated means {without our prior permission} or attempt to access data you do not have permission to access.”

Clark said Facebook already provides targeting data sets for political ads, and that the browser extension used by the researchers was designed in a way to evade Facebook’s detection systems and collect data like usernames, ads, links to user profiles and “Why am I seeing this ad?” information.

Part of the reason the company was so quick to crackdown on the researchers could be a bid to remain in compliance with a 2019 data privacy agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, in which the company was fined a record $5 billion as punishment for failing to police how data was collected by outside developers.

The NYU research project was started last September to better study how political ads were targeted towards certain audiences. Political ads on Facebook are made public in a searchable database which includes some demographic data about the gender and location of the people who watched the ad. However, the data fails to include how the ad was targeted towards a certain demographic, something which the Ad Observatory project was trying to study.   



Leave a Reply