In an Oct. 16 letter, a Facebook executive said the NYU researchers must disable and delete data collected from a special plug-in for Chrome and Firefox browsers that they have distributed to some 6,500 volunteers across the nation. The plug-in, named “Ad Observer,” enables researchers to see which political ads are shown to each volunteer on Facebook, which is known for allowing advertisers to target political ads beyond broad demographics such as race, age, and zip code.
“Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us,” the letter read. It also threatened “additional enforcement action” if NYU’s Center for Cybersecurity refused to cease the Ad Observatory project and delete the data they obtained by Nov. 30.
Ramya Krishnan, a lawyer with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University representing the NYU researchers, said Facebook’s attempt to shut down the research project is “alarming.”
“That Facebook is trying to shut down a tool crucial to exposing disinformation in the run up to one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history is alarming,” said Krishnan. “The public has a right to know what political ads are being run and how they are being targeted. Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to be the gatekeeper to information necessary to safeguard our democracy.”
The researchers explained on their website, where anyone can still download the Ad Observer browser extension and data they have collected, that the project is meant to “make online advertising in the 2020 US general election more transparent” by providing insights about what ads are targeting specific types of voters.
“Online ads are usually seen only by the audience the advertiser wants to target, and then they disappear,” the researchers wrote, adding that such a design makes it difficult for the public to monitor them and hold advertisers, including political groups, accountable. “This isn’t a partisan issue. We think it’s important for our democracy to check what politicians of all stripes are saying.”
Facebook was ordered by the Federal Trade Commission to restrict third-party data access after it admitted in early 2018 that the data of some 50 million Facebook users had been improperly obtained by Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct political data-analytics firm. A few months later, CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to testify before Congress and pay a historically large $5 billion fine.