Facebook’s excuses for shutting down research ring hollow

Columbia Journalism Review
August 13, 2021

Last week, Facebook shut down the personal accounts of several researchers affiliated with New York University. It said that their work—including a browser extension called Ad Observer, which allows users to share the ads that they are shown in their Facebook news feeds—violated the social network’s privacy policies. The company said that while it wants to help social scientists with their work, it can’t allow user information to be shared with third parties, in part because of the consent decree it signed with the Federal Trade Commission as part of a $5 billion settlement in the Cambridge Analytica case in 2018. Researchers, including some of those who were involved in the NYU project, said Facebook’s behavior was not surprising, given the company’s long history of dragging its feet when it comes to sharing information. And not long after Facebook used the FTC consent decree as a justification for the shutdown, the federal agency took the unusual step of making public a letter it sent to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, stating that if the company had contacted the FTC about the research, “we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest.”

Rebekah Tromble has experience working not just with Facebook but with Twitter: she is working with a group to research the impact Facebook may have had on the 2020 election, and she is also the head of a team of international researchers who were selected by Twitter to research the health of the discourse on the network, and how to improve it. She said she was “honestly quite dismayed” at the action Facebook took against the NYU research team, whose work she said was impressive. “I’ve worked with and talked to many people at the company for years, and there are quite a few with whom I see eye-to-eye and who are very supportive of independent research and accountability,” she said.

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