September 20, 2021

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Senators Want Facebook To Provide More Info About Data Privacy And Political Ads Policies

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In a further sign that lawmakers don’t plan to stop pressuring Facebook about its digital advertising policies, several top U.S. senators want the social network to provide more information about its decision to cut off a team of academic researchers from studying political misinformation.

Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar, Christopher Coons and Mark Warner are asking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to answer a series of questions about the company’s decision to disable access to a group of New York University researchers working with thousands of volunteers to understand what kinds of political ads people see on their personal Facebook accounts.

Last week, the NYU Ad Observatory—a nonpartisan team based in NYU’s school of engineering—found its accounts had been disabled by Facebook, which the company said was for violating its user privacy policies. However, in a letter sent on Friday to Zuckerberg describing online advertising platforms as “opaque and unregulated,” the lawmakers wrote that “social media companies maintain have allowed a hotbed of disinformation and consumer scams to proliferate, and we need to find solutions to those problems.” 

The letter, signed by Senators Klobuchar, Coons and Warner, asks Zuckerberg to provide written answers to a series of questions by August 20, including information about how many researchers and journalists had their accounts terminated by Facebook in 2021, why they were terminated, how researchers were compromising users’ privacy and whether those users were advertisers or other individuals. 

“We appreciate Facebook’s ongoing efforts to address misinformation and disinformation on its platforms,” according to the letter, which was made public today. “But there is much more to do, and independent researchers are a critical part of the solution.”

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In its decision to ban the researchers from its platform, Facebook cited the company’s 2019 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission—an agreement that included a $5 billion fine for privacy violations and new standards for improving data privacy on the platform. However, the FTC then released a letter in response that said the consent decree doesn’t prohibit academic researchers from accessing the platform if they are acting in good faith and in the public’s interest. 

“Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising,” according to the FTC’s letter, signed by acting FTC director Samuel Levine. “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.”

When asked for comment about the senators’ letter, a Facebook spokesperson declined to comment and directed Forbes to the company’s original blog post about its decision. 

Lawmakers are also asking Facebook to explain more about why it cited the FTC’s 2019 order as part of its reasoning for disabling accounts. Ask a part of that inquiry, the letter asks why Facebook didn’t contact the FTC beforehand, whether Facebook still thinks the order requires it to disable researchers’ accounts and whether there are plans to restore NYU Ad Observatory’s access. 

The lawmakers are also want more information about Facebook’s policy to share more information about its Facebook Open Research and Transparency initiative (FORT), which only provides three months of data ahead of the November 2020 election. The letters asks about why there is a three-month limitation, why Facebook only shares data for ads that reach more than 100 people, and what percentage of unique ads are only seen by more than 100 people. 

“While we agree that Facebook must safeguard user privacy, it is similarly imperative that Facebook allow credible academic researchers and journalists like those involved in the Ad Observatory project to conduct independent research that will help illuminate how the company can better tackle misinformation, disinformation and other harmful activity that is proliferating on its platforms,” according to the letter.

There’s no clear impact on how the dispute could disrupt Facebook’s online advertising overall, but for many it calls to mind the most infamous controversy over social media data-scraping. After Facebook in 2018 banned the now defunct British data firm Cambridge Analytica for misusing Facebook user data acquired by researchers, it sparked a global debate about data privacy, digital advertising and how social media can be used for manipulating politics. However, outside experts and other observers have said over the past week that they believe NYU was conducting its research in the public interest.

David Carroll—a professor of media design at the Parsons School of Design and The New School—thinks “Facebook is arbitrating the ‘truth’ about Facebook” when it comes to its handling of NYU’s researchers. (In 2018, Carroll sued Cambridge Analytica and its parent company to learn what data they had collected about him from his Facebook profile.)

“Facebook says it doesn’t want to be the ‘arbiter of truth,’ except when it comes to the truth about its own operations,” said Carroll, who starred in a 2019 Netflix documentary about social media, data privacy and political manipulation. “The company even has the audacity to wear its cover-up of Cambridge Analytica as a fig leaf to block academics for further study of its practices.”

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