Is Facebook censoring?

Facebook has closed the personal accounts of two researchers at New York University (NYU) and closed its investigation into misinformation disseminated through political ads on the social network.


Facebook says the researchers violated its terms of service and engaged in unauthorised data collection from its vast network. However, academics say the company is trying to control research that portrays it in a negative light. NYU researchers have been studying Facebook’s ad library, where searches can be made on ads running on Facebook products, for several years as part of the Ad Observatory Project.

“The researchers used the access to uncover systemic flaws in Facebook’s ad library, to identify misinformation in political ads, including many ads that raise distrust of our electoral system, and to study whether Facebook amplifies partisan political misinformation,” Laura Edelson, a senior researcher at NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy, said in a statement. “Facebook’s action against the NYU project has cut off access to Facebook data for other researchers and journalists,” Edelson said

The researchers offered Facebook users a web browser plug-in tool to voluntarily hand over their data, which showed how the social network targets political ads. However, Facebook says the browser extension was programmed to bypass its detection systems and suck up user data, raising privacy concerns.

In a blog post published late on Tuesday night, Facebook said it “takes unauthorised data harvesting seriously and when we find instances of data harvesting, we investigate them and take steps to protect our platform”. Facebook sent a warning letter to Edelson and another researcher, Damon McCoy, in October, but only closed their accounts on Tuesday, hours after Edelson informed the platform that he and McCoy were studying the spread of disinformation on the platform about the 6 January attack on the US Capitol, the researchers said.

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Mike Clark, Facebook’s director of product management, wrote in the blog post that the Menlo Park, California-based company welcomes research that holds it accountable but does not compromise the platform’s security or users’ privacy. “While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing data breach cannot be ignored and must be remedied,” he wrote.

At least two Democratic senators have expressed concern about Facebook’s move. Virginia’s Mark Warner said the technology platform “should be working with independent researchers and giving them more authority to do so”, but instead, the company “appears to have done the opposite”. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said it was worrying that Facebook had cut off researchers’ access to political ad data, “showing that the company continues to sell millions of dollars worth of political ads without adequate transparency”.

Facebook says it makes political ad information available through its ad library and provides “privacy-protected datasets” to researchers through other means.

Source:  BBC News


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