Three US lawmakers are demanding answers from Mark Zuckerberg on why Facebook disabled the accounts of researchers investigating ad targeting on the social media platform.
The company said the bans were due to concerns about a browser extension used by the researchers. The plugin, called Ad Observer, was used by volunteers to copy Facebook ads they saw. This was used to create a public database containing information on who the ads target and how they’re funded.
Facebook said the tool collected data about users who had not provided consent. But the researchers claimed those users were advertisers who had consented to make their ads public.
is not in the public interest. Facebook should not be able to cynically invoke user privacy to shut down research that puts them in an unflattering light, particularly when the “users” Facebook is talking about are advertisers who have consented to making their ads public. 3/3
— Laura Edelson (@LauraEdelson2) August 4, 2021
Facebook had said the move was necessary due to a consent agreement with the US Federal Trade Commission, but the FTC itself called this claim “inaccurate.”
Senators Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar, and Chris Coons on Monday sent Zuckerberg a letter asking for further details on why the researchers were banned.
In the letter, which has been posted in full by VICE News, the senators expressed surprise with the decision:
While we agree that Facebook must safeguard user privacy, it is similarly imperative that Facebook allow credible academic researchers and journalists like those involved in the Ad Observatory project to conduct independent research that will help illuminate how the company can better tackle misinformation, disinformation, and other harmful activity that is proliferating on its platforms.
The senators asked Zuckerberg eight questions about Facebook’s decision to terminate the researchers’ access to the platform.
These include requests for further information on which accounts have been disabled, how they violated Facebook’s rules, and whether the company was planning to reinstate them. The senators have asked Zuckerberg to respond by August 20.
The letter adds to mounting pressure on Facebook to justify shutting down the research. Critics have accused the company of weaponizing privacy concerns to avoid external scrutiny.
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