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FTC Official Blasts Facebook Over Revoking Researchers’ Access

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(Bloomberg) -- A top Federal Trade Commission official blasted Facebook Inc. over its decision to disable the personal accounts of a group of New York University researchers studying political ads on the social network -- and blaming the consent decree with the agency to justify the action.

Samuel Levine, the FTC’s acting director of the bureau of consumer protection, also criticized the company for failing to “honor its commitment” to consult with the agency about whether the agreement applied to the researchers.

“The consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest,” Levine wrote in a letter to Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. “Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising.”

A Facebook spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday, Facebook said the researchers at the NYU Ad Observatory were violating the platform’s terms of service that bar a user from accessing or collecting “data from our products using automated means (without our prior permission) or attempt to access data you do not have permission to access.”

Initially, Facebook said the move also was motivated by an effort to remain in compliance with a 2019 data privacy agreement with the FTC, in which the company was punished for failing to police how data was collected by outside developers. Facebook was fined a record $5 billion as part of a settlement with regulators.

A Facebook spokesman later clarified that while the consent decree didn’t force the company to suspend the researchers’ accounts, it requires that Facebook maintain a comprehensive privacy program.

“While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope that the company is not invoking privacy -- much less the FTC consent order -- as a pretext to advance other aims,” Levine wrote.

The NYU-led research project started before the 2020 U.S. election to better study the thousands of political ads on the social network. Political ads on Facebook are public in a searchable database, including some demographic data about the gender and location of people who saw the ad. But the database doesn’t include details about how an ad was targeted, part of the information the Ad Observatory was trying to collect.

In order to collect that data, the NYU Ad Observatory asked people to download a browser extension that collected data on what political ads the users saw on Facebook, and how those ads were targeted.

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