Platforms vs. PhDs: How tech giants court and crush the people who study them

A legal standoff between NYU researchers and Facebook sheds light on the increasingly fraught dynamic between tech companies and academics.

March 19, 2021

Laura Edelson was in a state of panic, and I knew I was a little bit to blame for her freakout.

"If this is true," Edelson told me this week during one of several frantic phone calls, "this is my nightmare."

I had reached out to Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering, to ask her about something Facebook had told me about why the company recently served Edelson and her colleagues with a highly-publicized cease-and-desist notice. Edelson is the co-creator of Ad Observer, a browser extension that collects data on who political advertisers are targeting on Facebook. Facebook told me that one reason it was ordering Edelson to shut down Ad Observer was that it had violated Facebook's policies by scraping data from users who had never consented to have their information collected. Facebook said the Ad Observer team was publishing that information, too, for anyone to download.

Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democray & Politics, said she personally believes researchers should be given safe harbor under the law to scrape data if they do it in a way that respects users' privacy, as she feels the NYU researchers do. And she's been pushing for regulations in the U.S. and Europe that would create rules of the road for such data sharing. "However, when it comes to providing financial support for building tools based on scraping, our obligations to the university and our own funders mean we have to proceed with caution," Tromble said. "I am very happy to advocate for and other projects that scrape data, but our institute cannot fund them at this time."

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