September 20, 2021

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Top Lawmakers And Consumer Advocates Condemn Facebook’s Decision To Block Academic Research On Political Ads

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A day after Facebook disabled academic researchers’ efforts to study political ad-targeting, critics including several top U.S. senators say the social network should be doing more to improve transparency.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced it disabled access for a group of New York University researchers who have spent the past year studying how misinformation is spread through political ad-targeting on the platform. The group, called the NYU Ad Observatory, began in September 2020 in collaboration with thousands of volunteers who downloaded a plug-in to automatically send researchers copies of the political ads served to their accounts.

Although Facebook has been in contact with the Ad Observatory since last year, the company didn’t shut down their accounts until yesterday—just hours after researchers said they informed Facebook that they were studying the spread of disinformation on the platform related to the January 6 attacks at the U.S. Capitol.

“While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be ignored and should be remediated,” Mike Clark, Facebook’s product management director, wrote in a blog post announcing the decision. “Collecting data via scraping is an industry-wide problem that jeopardizes people’s privacy.”

The move comes almost exactly two years after Facebook’s landmark settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which in 2019 fined the Silicon Valley giant $5 billion over data privacy violations. As a part of the settlement, the FTC also imposed new data privacy restrictions and new accountability standards.

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According to Clark, NYU researchers violated the company’s terms of service while gathering data in a way “programmed to evade our detection systems,” adding that Facebook’s actions are “in line with our privacy program under the FTC order.”

Lawmakers who have pushed for regulating digital advertising in recent years condemned Facebook’s decision. In an emailed statement sent today to Forbes, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said “it is vital that social media companies both protect user data and improve transparency.” U.S. Senator Mark Warner—a vocal critic of Facebook and other tech giants—also released a statement describing Facebook’s decision to cut off the Ad Observatory as “deeply concerning.” And on Twitter, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden said he’s asked the FTC to “to confirm that this excuse is as bogus as it sounds.”

“After years of abusing users’ privacy, it’s rich for Facebook to use it as an excuse to crack down on researchers exposing its problems,” Wyden wrote.

Klobuchar, a co-sponsor of the Honest Ads Act—a bipartisan bill that would modernize federal election laws to make social media advertising subject to the same rules as broadcast and print ads—said there are “serious problems with social media platforms that facilitate the spread of misinformation.” (Last month, she also introduced new legislation to hold Facebook and other tech companies accountable for health-related misinformation including content related to vaccines.)

“As we face threats to our democracy, we need more transparency from online platforms, not less,” she said. “That is why I am deeply troubled by the news that Facebook is cutting off researcher access to political advertising data, which has shown that the company continues to sell millions of dollars’ worth of political ads without proper disclosures.”

According to Warner, the Ad Observatory’s efforts 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.”

“For several years now, I have called on social media platforms like Facebook to work with, and better empower, independent researchers, whose efforts consistently improve the integrity and safety of social media platforms by exposing harmful and exploitative activity,” Warner said. “Instead, Facebook has seemingly done the opposite. It’s past time for Congress to act to bring greater transparency to the shadowy world of online advertising, which continues to be a major vector for fraud and misconduct.”

Facebook itself has in the past expressed support for the Honest Ads Act. In an April 2018 Facebook post announcing new tools for political ad transparency and accountability, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the Honest Ads Act “will help raise the bar for all political advertising online” and that “election interference is a problem that’s bigger than any one platform.” However, the legislation is among the many bills related to digital advertising that have failed to gain traction in Congress.

Facebook’s own Ad Library does provide detail of political candidate’ and organizations’ advertising — including overall spending, geographic targeting and a repository of the ads themselves. However, the Ad Observatory’s work has found examples of political ads that Facebook missed and failed to label. Facebook’s publicly shared information also doesn’t provide any information about how users are targeted based on personal interests or their activity on Facebook.

In response to Facebook’s decision, Cybersecurity for Democracy—a nonpartisan group within NYU’s school of engineering that operates the Ad Observatory—released a statement accusing Facebook of “silencing” independent research. Laura Edelson, the lead researcher at Cybersecurity for Democracy, said the social network has cut of access to “more than two dozen” other researchers and journalists accessing Facebook data through the Ad Observer project. She said Facebook decision also blocks them from continuing work on measuring vaccine misinformation, adding that making “data about disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy.”

“Over the last several years, we’ve used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, to identify misinformation in political ads, including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation,” Edelson wrote. “By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work.”

While Facebook said it tried working with researchers to provide data in a “privacy protected way,” outside organizations that have encouraged Facebook users to participate in NYU’s research said Facebook’s claims of privacy violations are unfounded. Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, said some of its members had opted in and that “data that was not personally identifiable.” Meanwhile, Mozilla issued its own statement on Wednesday said that the privacy-focused browser had reviewed NYU researchers’ code along with a design review and found that people could safely contribute.

“NYU’s Ad Observatory project was run entirely from volunteer-donated data that was not personally identifiable, making any claims from Facebook that this violated user privacy untrue,” according to a statement issued by Common Cause Media and Democracy Program Director Yosef Getachew. “Shutting down this project is just another attempt by the platform to diminish the power of users and skirt accountability.”

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