“All of our work has been stopped”: Facebook cut off access to researchers studying its targeted ads

The social network deleted the accounts of researchers, who were studying how political ads were shared on Facebook. The move has been heavily criticized, and researchers believe the platform is preventing them from doing their jobs.

On August 3, Facebook issued a press release, titled ” Research can’t be an excuse to put privacy at risk “. In this press release, the social network explains that it has revoked access to its platform to several researchers from the prestigious New York University. ” For months, we tried to work with the researchers to give them the data they needed. […] But today, we blocked their access, after trying unsuccessfully to make them respect our terms and conditions of use. », We can read. ” The New York University Ad Observatory project studied political ads, and used unauthorized means to gain access to Facebook data. We made the decision to stop their project in order to preserve people’s privacy […] “.

The press release did not go unnoticed. Privacy issues are taken very seriously by governments and users, especially since Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 US presidential campaign. But yet, contrary to what the press release and Facebook have suggested , researchers did not collect private data from non-consenting users.

Source: Jeremy Zero / Unsplash

What happened ?

The Ad Observatory project, of which the researchers mentioned in the Facebook press release are part, aims to analyze political advertisements that appear on the social network. In addition to understanding who they were targeting, the researchers also wanted to know who was paying for their release. Their goal, as they explained in a blog post, was to find out on what criteria the people targeted by these ads were chosen. A vast mission, for which researchers had to develop several tools.

In fact, none of the instruments developed by Facebook made it possible to carry out such analyzes. The Ad Library tool, which tracks the platform’s ads, offers a certain amount of information about the companies that pay for the ads – but it’s impossible to know how the people who will see those ads are selected.

Ad Observer, the tool created especially by researchers to analyze ads, was able to provide all of this information. But, as its website specifies, it had to be installed as an add-on, with the express consent of Facebook users. From that point on, he was able to collect the missing data, such as the list of pages liked or areas of interest. However, according to the researchers, Ad Observer did not collect people’s names or their Facebook IDs. No information that would have made it possible to identify them on Facebook therefore, contrary to what the social network said on August 3.

About twenty people stranded

The data obtained with Ad Observer have been made public, and have also enabled journalists and other researchers to investigate various issues. Above all, they made it possible to highlight certain Facebook problems, such as the fact that political ads were not always well labeled as such, contrary to what had been promised; or that fake news and far-right political articles have received much more traction on Facebook than others.

Articles against Facebook, which makes the news of the deletion of researchers’ accounts all the more worrying. Laura Edelson, one of the researchers involved in the Ad Observatory project, believes that deleting their accounts amounts to ” the end of all our work. Facebook also revoked access to more than 20 people, journalists and researchers, who received data from Facebook thanks to our project. », She regrets.« Facebook wants to silence us “She also told Bloomberg News,” because our work shows all their problems “.

Fallacious arguments

If the reactions are so vehement, it is also and above all because Facebook’s explanations are fallacious. The press release highlighted the fact that the researchers did not respect Facebook’s terms of service, and that the platform had tried, for months, to find a solution. The social network also explained that the researchers had used the private data of Facebook users without their consent. Facebook, however, forgets to specify that these users are not people, but the public pages who paid for the ads.

The information on these public pages was freely accessible, and Ad Observer observed and collected it. And the only information coming from ordinary people and users of the platform was obtained with their consent, as Laura Edelson already explained a few months ago.

The hypocrisy of Facebook’s decision has been widely criticized on social media by researchers and journalists. ” Facebook chooses to cut off access to researchers rather than data brokers by Bridgetree », In particular David Carroll survey, an American media specialist.

The news was even commented on by American politicians: Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic senator from Minnesota, said she found Facebook’s decision ” very disturbing “. Mozilla browser security chief Marshall Erwin also cracked a blog post explaining that Facebook’s arguments were spurious. ” Facebook claims this move was made to protect user privacy, but we don’t think this argument holds up. “. For now, Facebook has not commented on its decision further, and does not seem ready to reverse it.

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