Facebook’s justification for banning third-party researchers ‘inaccurate,’ says FTC

Technology

When Facebook banned the personal accounts of academics researching ad transparency and misinformation on its platform this week, it justified the decision in part by saying it was only following rules set out by the Federal Trade Commission. But the FTC itself says this is “inaccurate” and that its rules require no such action, reports The Washington Post.

Facebook claims it banned the accounts “to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order.” The order in question was put in place following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and says Facebook must obtain “affirmative express consent” from users before sharing their data with a third party (known as the “consent decree”) and maintain a “comprehensive privacy program.”

Facebook’s wording about which part of the order from the FTC mandated its actions is ambiguous, but the agency was nonetheless unhappy about its claims. The FTC’s acting director for the Bureau of Consumer Protection, Samuel Levine, complained to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

“Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest,” wrote Levine. “While I appreciate that Facebook has now corrected the record, I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter.”

In a later interview with Wired, Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne acknowledged that it was not the FTC’s consent decree that forced its hand, but rather the stipulation that Facebook maintain a “comprehensive privacy program,” which the company says the researchers violated. However, this makes the ban Facebook’s decision, not the FTC’s. If Facebook wanted to it could make allowances in its privacy program for such research.

The research itself was based on a browser plug-in called Ad Observer, which Facebook users can install to collect information about which political ads they’re shown and why. This information is pooled by the researchers, and used to find out more about political advertising. As well as helping track who is funding political campaigns, this work helps track misinformation on Facebook, as political ads aren’t fact-checked. The Ad Observer plug-in is still live and operational, but Facebook banned the pages advertising the project on the social network as well as the personal accounts of researchers involved in the work.

Facebook also says it banned the plug-in because it violated users’ privacy by collecting information about users who had not installed it. But an independent audit of the plug-in’s code by Mozilla says this claim is also false. As Mozilla’s Marshall Erwin wrote in a blog post (emphasis his): “We decided to recommend Ad Observer because our reviews assured us that it respects user privacy and supports transparency. It collects ads, targeting parameters and metadata associated with the ads. It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers.”