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Political ads were taken down by Facebook, daring authorities to regulate

The company blocked the researchers’ personal accounts, pages, applications, and access to the platform on Tuesday, as part of an effort to block them from studying political ads and misinformation. By doing so, NYU’s Ad Observatory is no longer allowed to collect data about political ads users see on Facebook using a browser extension it released in 2020.

New York University researchers scraped Facebook user data without permission, according to Facebook, which blocked the Ad Observatory. Facebook’s attempt to stop the Ad Observatory’s research has more sinister roots in its attempt to prevent academics from exposing the platform’s shortcomings. The academics behind the Ad Observatory say they got approval from everyone using the browser add-on.

Facebook removed political ads, challenging authorities to regulate them

Facebook suspended the NYU researcher’s account on August 3 in response to her tweet. “By suspending our accounts, they have effectively ended all this work,” Edelson said.

“Facebook has effectively blocked access to over two dozen other researchers and journalists who use Facebook data in our work, including our work measuring vaccine misinformation using the Virality tool. We have many partners who rely on our data, including the Disinformation Project and other organizations. Making disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy democratic environment and an open internet.”


Facebook is certainly entitled to be nervous about third parties gathering data from its platform in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The Facebook team suggested initially that the Ad Observatory was blocked because of a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), but that just isn’t true.

The NYU researchers were not brought to justice because of the consent decree, said Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne in an interview with Wired. According to Reuters, Osborne noted that, under the decree, Facebook had to create guidelines for a privacy program that the researchers violated. 

A letter from the FTC to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the company’s response, but acting director Samuel Levine noted that the revised explanation offers little new information.

In a letter to Levine, Levine noted that if you had contacted us beforehand, we would have pointed out that the consent decree doesn’t bar Facebook from granting exceptions for good-faith research. 

According to the FTC, efforts should be made to shed light on opaque business practices, especially advertising that relies on the monitoring of consumers. The FTC consent order – and certainly not privacy laws – should not be used as a pretext by Facebook and others.”

There is no evidence that Facebook can actually implement the consent decree it is hiding behind. However, at this time, neither Facebook nor NYU Ad Observatory can see a real path forward, since neither has a compelling reason to go the other way.

U.S. authorities essentially have to face this whole situation in order to take regulatory action. According to The Verge’s Casey Newton, the best way to force big tech companies and researchers to work together is for Congress to pass privacy legislation with a dedicated space for academic researchers and an agency to oversee that research and the online platforms.

According to some politicians, this is the case. According to NPR, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner called on Congress to act to create more transparency for online advertising. Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden tweeted that Facebook’s claim that the NYU tool might violate privacy law was “bogus.”

Laws and legislation differ from public statements. According to Ramya Krishnan of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, this entire situation – the cutting off of NYU researchers by Facebook and the academics’ lack of recourse – proves that lawmakers need to act.

According to her, the company serves as a gatekeeper for journalism and research on the way its platform works and how its impact affects society. And we believe that that is untenable. Public discourse and democracy depend, in part, on knowing and understanding what Facebook’s platform means.

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