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Facebook tells academics to stop monitoring its political ads for any rule-breaking.... on privacy grounds

Irony overload as social media giant accuses NYU of bulk data collection

Facebook has ordered the end to an academic monitoring project that has repeatedly exposed failures by the internet giant to clearly label political advertising on its platform.

The social media goliath informed New York University (NYU) that research by its Tandon School of Engineering's Online Transparency Project's Ad Observatory violates Facebook's terms of service on bulk data collection and demanded it end the program immediately.

The project recruited 6,500 volunteers to install its AdObserver browser extension that collects data on the ads that Facebook shows them personally. It sends the information to the American university, allowing it to perform a real-time check that Facebook is living up its promise to clearly disclose not only who paid for political ads shown on the platform but also how much and when the adverts would be shown.

“We launched the Online Transparency Project two years ago to make it easier to see who was purchasing political ads on Facebook,” said co-founder Laura Edelson, of the project.

“With the NYU Ad Observatory, we have created a tool with significantly more functionality than Facebook’s Ad Library currently provides. It is our hope that journalists across the country utilize this free tool to support their election coverage and educate readers about how politicians are targeting Facebook users.”

The Facebook Ad Library is a public collection of all adverts running on Facebook, and any not suitably labeled are flagged up by the university project using data obtained via the AdObserver extension.

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Facebook didn't like this one bit, and responded with a warning letter on October 16, the Wall Street Journal first reported. The Silicon Valley titan wants the academic project shut down and all data deleted by November 30.

“Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us,” Facebook privacy policy official Allison Hendrix is quoted as saying.

"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."

It seems the researchers aren't backing down. On October 22, they published the latest research showing 12 political ads that had slipped under the radar as non-political on Facebook, some of which are still running.

Facebook has been under serious scrutiny this US election season after a flood of Russia-financed divisive ad campaigns, some paid for in rubles, were blamed for trying to distort the 2016 election and turn Americans against one another.

As a result of Congressional hearings on the issue, Facebook offered tepid support for legislation that would require digital platforms to state who had paid for political ads and describe who it was targeted at.

Facebook then preempted such a law by launching its own Ad Library system to do just that, though researchers have long complained that it only gave a limited view as to what was going on.

Through the looking glass

Rather than rely on Facebook’s carefully controlled library, the NYU researchers built their own external approach and quickly discovered widespread disclosure violations which it says have helped facilitate the spread of election disinformation.

Facebook’s subsequent demand that the project be shut down for violating its own terms and conditions has caused an outcry from activists. “Instead of correcting its own documented failings and living up to its commitments, Facebook is now demanding that the NYU researchers halt their research,” said Jesse Littlewood, the VP for Campaigns for Common Cause.

“This is an outrageous act of hypocrisy,” he went on. “Rather than combat the rampant disinformation and hate on its platform, Facebook has decided to go after the people who are helping voters understand who is trying to influence their votes.”

The organization has launched a petition calling on Facebook to reverse its demand. We asked Facebook for comment, and we'll let you know if it has any. ®

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