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Researcher banned from Facebook beseeches Congress to regulate social media

Laura Edelson wants greater transparency

Researcher banned from Facebook beseeches Congress to regulate social media
Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC. Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC.

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An NYU researcher who was shut out of Facebook has taken her fight for transparency to the US Congress.

During Congressional testimony on Tuesday, Laura Edelson, who investigates online ads and misinformation, called for new data requirements and legal protections for researchers.

“We hope that Congress will push for laws that require platforms to be a lot more transparent, and protect researchers engaged in legitimate public interest research from legal threats,” Edelson told TNW after testifying.

Edelson has herself been a target of these threats. For months, Facebook had demanded that her team stop using a browser plug-in to track how users are targeted with ads.

In August, the firm turned the threats into action. Facebook shut down the accounts, apps, pages, and platform access associated with Edelson’s NYU Ad Observatory

Facebook ads

Facebook said that it banned the researchers due to concerns about their browser extension.

The tool, called Ad Observer, allows users to voluntarily and anonymously share information about adverts they see.

The data revealed that the archive of political ads that Facebook provides to researchers is missing more than 100,000 adverts.

The information also showed there are several ad categories that the social network has deliberately excluded from this archive. This includes ads bought by organizations that Facebook calls “news publishers” and posts that advertisers pay social media influencers to promote.

Ad Observer helped researchers understand how advertisers spread disinformation and target specific demographic groups. Facebook, however, was not a fan.

The company said Ad Observer was gathered data about users who “did not install it or consent to the collection.”  But the social network left out one important detail: the only users who had data collected without their consent were advertisers.

“And as Facebook itself makes clear, all Facebook ads are public information,” said Edelson.

The suspension of her team’s accounts has severely hampered their work. She believes the firm exploited concerns about privacy to squelch her team’s work and used them as an example to chill other researchers.

Edelson called on Congress to protect future investigations.

Legal actions

Edelson urged lawmakers to adopt three specific policies to mandate greater transparency on social media.

  1. Require platforms to provide universal ad transparency, which would include data on funding, targeting, and impression.
  2. Pass a safe harbor law that protects researchers and journalists who collect data from platforms.
  3. Mandate that platforms make all public data with meaningful reach available to everyone.

Edelson also hopes that scrutiny from Congress will encourage Facebook to restore her account.

She notes that Facebook repeatedly rejects proposed remedies to problems. Restricting access to independent researchers will heighten the risks of these issues causing real-world harm.

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