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Facebook takes bold stance on privacy – of its ads: Independent transparency research blocked

Heaven forbid someone lifts the lid on social network's disinformation and public manipulation

Updated Facebook, which has repeatedly touted its transparency efforts, on Tuesday disabled the accounts of independent ad transparency researchers.

The targeted ad biz said it did so in the name of privacy, a source of persistent scandal for the corporation. Facebook said it disabled the accounts, apps, Pages, and platform access for NYU’s Ad Observatory Project and participating researchers because their work violated its rules.

"NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political ads using unauthorized means to access and collect data from Facebook, in violation of our Terms of Service," said Mike Clark, product management director at Facebook, in a blog post.

Clark said Facebook did so to comply with the terms of its FTC Order, which followed from the company's 2019 settlement with the US trade watchdog to resolve privacy complaints. And he said Facebook told the researchers their tool would violate the social network's terms a year ago, before it launched.

The NYU Ad Observatory created a browser extension called Ad Observer that scrapes data from Facebook in a way that avoids the tech giant's detection systems, said Clark, claiming some of that data was not publicly viewable on the site.

"Today’s action doesn’t change our commitment to providing more transparency around ads on Facebook or our ongoing collaborations with academia," Clark insisted.

The FTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

So now privacy's a thing?

In a phone interview with The Register, Ashkan Soltani, a privacy researcher and former Federal Trade Commission technologist, dismissed Facebook's justification and the idea that the consent decree requires such drastic action.

"It's selective enforcement," he said, noting that Facebook often permits other analytics tools on their websites. "Yet again Facebook is trying to use privacy to fulfill a policy goal of reducing transparency around ad serving."

The reason Facebook would do so, he said, is that the company has faced a lot of criticism around how it targets ads, and not just political ads, which the NYU researchers are studying.

FB's stance, he said, is particularly ironic given its failure to defend against the scraping of actual consumer data that produced the massive spillage of personal info from 533m Facebook accounts in April.

The Ad Observer extension, he said, isn't collecting personal information about Facebook users. It's collecting information about ads that are meant to be shown publicly.

Mozilla said as much back in October last year when Facebook initially threatened to block Ad Observer. "Facebook claims its motive for threatening Ad Observer is that browser plugins and extensions, like Ad Observer, could violate Facebook users’ privacy," Moz said in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

"But Ad Observer only collects information about the ads people see, not personal posts or users’ personal information. What is true is that the Ad Observatory project has revealed serious flaws in Facebook’s advertising transparency policies."

According to the NYU Ad Observatory, the Ad Observer extension collects: the advertiser's name and disclosure string; the ad's text, image, and link; the information Facebook provides about how the ad was targeted; when the ad was shown to you; and your browser language. The project claims it does not collect any identifying or personal information.

"[Ad Observer] essentially pulls back the veil on their underlying algorithms," said Soltani, adding that regulators have a legitimate interest in such information. "The HUD investigation was made possible through this type of analysis."

In 2018, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook for discriminatory advertising [PDF]. Facebook settled the charges a year later, agreeing to make changes to its ad system.

Researchers involved in the project – an attempt to expose social media threats to democracy – promptly denounced the move.

Laura Edelson, a doctoral candidate at NYU said, "Over the last several years, we’ve used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, identify misinformation in political ads including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation."

"By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work. Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project."

Other academics involved in the project expressed similar dissatisfaction.

It is disgraceful that Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform

"It is disgraceful that Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform," said Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, in a statement.

"With its platform awash in vaccine disinformation and partisan campaigns to manipulate the public, Facebook should be welcoming independent research, not shutting it down. Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest."

So too did politicians, like US Senator Mark Warner (D-VA).

"This latest action by Facebook to cut off an outside group’s transparency efforts – efforts that have repeatedly facilitated revelations of ads violating Facebook’s Terms of Service, ads for frauds and predatory financial schemes, and political ads that were improperly omitted from Facebook’s lackluster Ad Library – is deeply concerning," said Warner in a statement, urging legislative action to deal with "shadowy world of online advertising."

Despite years of calling on social media platforms to work with independent researchers to improve platform integrity, he said, Facebook appears to have done the opposite.

The political pique rippled across the pond, prompting UK MP Damian Collins to state, "Facebook is closing down legitimate academic research into targeted advertising on its platform. This shows once again that they are more concerned about protecting their interests than allowing independent scrutiny of how their ad tools are used & abused." ®

Updated to add

"I write concerning Facebook’s recent insinuation that its actions against an academic research project conducted by NYU’s Ad Observatory were required by the company’s consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. As the company has since acknowledged, this is inaccurate," said Acting Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection Samuel Levine in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg.

"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. While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope that the company is not invoking privacy – much less the FTC consent order – as a pretext to advance other aims."

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