Facebook does not retain a reason to ban the research


When Facebook said On Tuesday, when she suspended the accounts of a team of NYU researchers, the companies seemed to have their hands tied. The team collected a wealth of data on targeting political ads through browser extensions Facebook repeatedly warned that they were not allowed to do so.

“We’ve been trying for months to work with New York University to give three of their researchers the precise access they’ve sought in a privacy-protected way,” wrote Mike Clark, director of Facebook’s product management. in a blog post. “We have taken these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in accordance with our privacy program under [Federal Trade Commission] Order. ”

Clark thought of consent regulation imposed by FTC In 2019, along with a $ 5 billion fine for violating privacy. You can understand the difficulties of the company. If researchers want one thing, but a powerful federal regulator requires something else, the regulator will win.

Except Facebook wasn’t in that problem, because the consent ordinance doesn’t prohibit what the researchers were doing. Maybe the company didn’t stick to the good will of the government, but because it doesn’t want the public to know one of its most closely guarded secrets: who is shown which ads and why.

The FTC penalty grew out of Cambridge Analytica scandal. In that case, nominally academic researchers were given access to Facebook user data and data about their friends, directly from Facebook. That data ended ingloriously in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, which used it for micro-targeting on behalf of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

NYU Project, Ad Observer, works very differently. No direct access to Facebook data. Instead, it is a browser extension. When a user downloads an extension, they agree to submit the ads they see, including the information in the “Why am I seeing this ad?” Section. widget, researchers. The researchers then conclude which policy ads are targeted to which user groups – data that Facebook does not publish.

Does this arrangement violate the consent regulation? It is possible that two parts of the order could be applied. Section 2 requires Facebook to obtain the user’s consent before sharing their data with anyone else. Since Ad Observer relies on users agreeing to share data, not Facebook itself, this is not relevant.

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

Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman, admits the consent ordinance did not force Facebook to suspend the researchers ’accounts. Instead, he says, section 7 of the regulation requires Facebook to implement a “comprehensive privacy program” that “protects the privacy, confidentiality, and integrity” of user data. Facebook’s privacy program, not the consent regulation itself, prohibits what the Ad Observer team did. In particular, Osborne says, researchers have repeatedly violated part of Facebook terms of use which prescribes: “You may not access or collect data from our Products using automated means (without our prior permission).” A blog post posting account bans mentions scraping 10 times.

Laura Edelson, a doctoral student at NYU and co-creator of Ad Observer, rejects the suggestion that the tool is automated scraper in general.

“Scratching is when I write a program to automatically scroll through a web page and have the computer control the way the browser works and downloads,” she says. “Our expansion just doesn’t work that way. Our extension runs with the user and we only collect data for ads that are displayed to the user. ”

Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees. “There’s not really a good, consistent definition of scraping,” he says, but the phrase fits weirdly when users choose to document and share their personal experiences on the platform. “It doesn’t seem like something Facebook can control. Unless they say it’s against the terms of the service that the user records their interaction with Facebook in any way. ”

In the end, whether the extension is really “automated” somehow doesn’t matter, because Facebook could always change its own policy – or, under existing policy, it could simply give permission to researchers. Therefore, the more important question is whether the Ad Observer actually violates someone’s privacy. Osborne, a Facebook spokesman, says that when the extension goes along with the ad, it could be the disclosure of information about other users who have not agreed to share their data. For example, if I have an extension installed, it could share the identity of my friends who have liked or commented on the ad.

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