Independent Research on Blocked Transparency • The Register


Facebook, which has repeatedly touted its transparency efforts, deactivated the accounts of independent ad transparency researchers on Tuesday.

The targeted advertising company said it did so in the name of privacy, a source of continuing scandal for the company. Facebook said it disabled accounts, apps, pages, and platform access for the NYU Ad Observatory Project and participating researchers because their work violated its rules.

“NYU’s Ad Observatory project investigated political ads using unauthorized means to access and collect data on Facebook, in violation of our terms of service,” said Mike Clark, director of product management at Facebook , in a blog post.

Clark said Facebook did it to comply with the terms of its FTC order, which followed the company’s 2019 settlement with the U.S. trade watchdog to resolve privacy complaints. And he said Facebook told researchers their tool would violate social network terms a year ago, before it launched.

NYU Ad Observatory has created a browser extension called Ad Observer that retrieves data from Facebook in a way that bypasses the tech giant’s detection systems, Clark said, saying some of the data was not visible. publicly on the site.

“Today’s action does not change our commitment to provide more transparency around Facebook ads or our ongoing collaborations with universities,” Clark insisted.

The FTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

So now is privacy one thing?

In a telephone interview with The register, Ashkan Soltani, privacy researcher and former Federal Trade Commission technologist, dismissed Facebook’s justification and the idea that the consent decree requires such drastic action.

“It’s a selective app,” he said, noting that Facebook often allows other analytics tools on their websites. “Again, Facebook is trying to use privacy to achieve a political goal of reducing transparency around ad serving.”

The reason Facebook would, he said, is because the company has faced a lot of criticism over how it targets the ads, not just political ads, that NYU researchers are studying.

FB’s position, he said, is particularly ironic given its inability to defend itself against the scraping of real consumer data that produced the massive personal information dump of 533 million Facebook accounts in April.

The Ad Observer extension, he said, does not collect personal information about Facebook users. It collects information about advertisements intended for public display.

Mozilla said so in October of last year when Facebook initially threatened to block Ad Observer. “Facebook claims that its motive for threatening Ad Observer is that browser plugins and extensions, like Ad Observer, could violate the privacy of Facebook users,” Moz said in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“But Ad Observer only collects information about ads people see, not personal posts or users’ personal information. What is true is that the Ad Observatory project has exposed serious flaws in policies. of Facebook advertising transparency. “

According to the NYU Ad Observatory, the Ad Observer extension collects: advertiser’s name and disclosure channel; the text, image and link of the ad; the information that Facebook provides on how the advertisement was targeted; when the ad was shown to you; and the language of your browser. The project claims that it does not collect any identifying or personal information.

“[Ad Observer] Essentially lifts the veil on their underlying algorithms, ”Soltani said, adding that regulators have a legitimate interest in such information. “The HUD investigation was made possible thanks to this type of analysis.

In 2018, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook for discriminatory advertising [PDF]. Facebook paid the fees a year later, agreeing to make changes to its advertising system.

Researchers involved in the project – an attempt to expose social media threats to democracy – quickly denounced the move.

Laura Edelson, doctoral student at NYU noted, “Over the past several years, we have used this access to uncover systemic flaws in Facebook’s ad library, identify disinformation in political ads, including many that cause distrust of our electoral system, and to study the Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation. “

“By suspending our accounts, Facebook effectively ended all of this work. Facebook also effectively cut off access to over two dozen other researchers and journalists who have access to Facebook data through our project.”

Other academics involved in the project have expressed similar dissatisfaction.

It’s a shame that Facebook is trying to crush legitimate searches that tell the public about disinformation on their platform

“It’s a shame that Facebook is trying to crush legitimate research that informs the public of disinformation on their platform,” said Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the Tandon School of Engineering. New York University, in a statement.

“With its platform awash in vaccine misinformation and partisan campaigns to manipulate the public, Facebook should welcome independent research, not shut it down. Allow Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is happening on its platform is not in the public interest. “

The same goes for politicians, like US Senator Mark Warner (D-VA).

This latest move by Facebook to end an outside group’s transparency efforts – efforts that have repeatedly facilitated disclosures of advertisements violating Facebook’s terms of service, advertisements for fraud and ploys predatory financiers, and political ads that have been wrongly omitted from Facebook’s lackluster ad library – is of deep concern, “Warner said in a statement, calling for legislative action to deal with the” dark world of online advertising. “.

Despite years of calling on social media platforms to work with independent researchers to improve the integrity of the platform, he said, Facebook appears to have done the opposite.

Political anger spread across the pond, prompting UK MP Damian Collins establish, “Facebook is putting an end to legitimate academic research into targeted advertising on its platform. This shows once again that they are more concerned with protecting their interests than allowing an independent review of how their advertising tools are used. and abused. ” ®



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