Facebook’s Reason for Banning Researchers Doesn’t Hold Up


When Facebook mentioned Tuesday that it was suspending the accounts of a group of NYU researchers, it made it look like the corporate’s palms have been tied. The group had been crowdsourcing knowledge on political advert focusing on through a browser extension, one thing Facebook had repeatedly warned them was not allowed.

“For months, we’ve attempted to work with New York University to provide three of their researchers the precise access they’ve asked for in a privacy-protected way,” wrote Mike Clark, Facebook’s product administration director, in a blog post. “We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order.”

Clark was referring to the consent decree imposed by the Federal Trade Commission in 2019, together with a $5 billion high-quality for privateness violations. You can perceive the corporate’s predicament. If researchers need one factor, however a strong federal regulator requires one thing else, the regulator goes to win.

Except Facebook wasn’t in that predicament, as a result of the consent decree doesn’t prohibit what the researchers have been doing. Perhaps the corporate acted to not keep within the authorities’s good graces however as a result of it doesn’t need the general public to study one among its most intently guarded secrets and techniques: who will get proven which adverts, and why.

The FTC’s punishment grew out of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In that case, nominally educational researchers received entry to Facebook person knowledge, and knowledge about their associates, instantly from Facebook. That knowledge infamously ended up within the palms of Cambridge Analytica, which used it to microtarget on behalf of Donald Trump’s 2016 marketing campaign.

The NYU undertaking, the Ad Observer, works very otherwise. Facebook does not give it entry to knowledge. Rather, it’s a browser extension. When a person downloads the extension, they comply with ship the adverts they see, together with the knowledge within the “Why am I seeing this ad?” widget, to the researchers. The researchers then infer which political adverts are being focused at which teams of customers—knowledge that Facebook doesn’t publicize.

Does that association violate the consent decree? Two sections of the order might conceivably apply. Section 2 requires Facebook to get a person’s consent earlier than sharing their knowledge with another person. Since the Ad Observer depends on customers agreeing to share knowledge, not Facebook itself, that isn’t related.

When Facebook shares knowledge with outsiders, it “has certain obligations to police that data-sharing relationship,” says Jonathan Mayer, a professor of laptop science and public affairs at Princeton. “But there’s nothing in the order about if a user wants to go off and tell a third party what they saw on Facebook.”

Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, acknowledges that the consent decree didn’t power Facebook to droop the researchers’ accounts. Rather, he says, Section 7 of the decree requires Facebook to implement a “comprehensive privacy program” that “protects the privacy, confidentiality, and integrity” of person knowledge. It’s Facebook’s privateness program, not the consent decree itself, that prohibits what the Ad Observer group has been doing. Specifically, Osborne says, the researchers repeatedly violated a bit of Facebook’s terms of service that gives, “You may not access or collect data from our Products using automated means (without our prior permission).” The weblog publish saying the account bans mentions scraping 10 instances.

Laura Edelson, a PhD candidate at NYU and cocreator of the Ad Observer, rejects the suggestion that the device is an automatic scraper in any respect.

“Scraping is when I write a program to automatically scroll through a website and have the computer drive how the browser works and what’s downloaded,” she says. “That’s just not how our extension works. Our extension rides along with the user, and we only collect data for ads that are shown to the user.”

Bennett Cyphers, a technologist on the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees. “There’s not really a good, consistent definition of scraping,” he says, however the time period is an odd match when customers are selecting to doc and share their private experiences on a platform “That just seems like it’s not something that Facebook is able to control. Unless they’re saying it’s against the terms of service for the user to be taking notes on their interactions with Facebook in any way.”

Ultimately, whether or not the extension is de facto “automated” is type of irrelevant, as a result of Facebook might at all times change its personal coverage—or, underneath the prevailing coverage, might merely give the researchers permission. So the extra necessary query is whether or not the Ad Observer the truth is violates anybody’s privateness. Osborne, the Facebook spokesperson, says that when the extension passes alongside an advert, it might be exposing details about different customers who didn’t consent to sharing their knowledge. If I’ve the extension put in, for occasion, it might be sharing the identification of my associates who preferred or commented on an advert.



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