FTC slams Facebook for suspending researchers who were studying the social media giant’s ad-targeting

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Facebook suspended researchers accounts working with NYU Ad Observatory project. Facebook/The Asahi Shimbun via Getty
  • Facebook suspended researchers working with the NYU Ad Observatory for breaching an FTC privacy decree.
  • The Ad Observatory collects data from political ads sent to Facebook users.
  • The FTC says the decree “does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research.”
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The Federal Trade Commission is pushing back against Facebook’s reasoning for suspending researchers with the New York University’s Ad Observatory.

Facebook said in a blog post on August 3 that the researchers were “using unauthorized means to access and collect data,” breaching a privacy consent agreement invoked by the FTC.

However, the agency countered in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, saying: “Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest.”

Researchers from the NYU Ad Observatory use a browser plugin to collect data from political ads on Facebook to study why users are targeted by specific political ads.

One of the lead researchers for the Ad Observatory previously told Insider’s Samantha Grindell that the project doesn’t collect users data. “We collect the ad and how the ad is targeted,” Laura Edelson said. “We don’t collect anything about user interaction with the ad.”

Facebook called the project’s data collection a violation of the company’s terms.

“NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political ads using unauthorized means to access and collect data from Facebook, in violation of our Terms of Service,” Mike Clark, Product Management Director at Facebook said in the blog post. “We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order.”

Facebook’s suspension of the researchers drew the ire of lawmakers including Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Mark Warner, among others, the Washington Post reported.

“For months, we’ve attempted to work with New York University to provide three of their researchers the precise access they’ve asked for in a privacy protected way,” Clark added. “Today, we disabled the accounts, apps, Pages and platform access associated with NYU’s Ad Observatory Project and its operators after our repeated attempts to bring their research into compliance with our Terms.”

The FTC said it supports efforts to”shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising” and warned the company against invoking privacy or the agency “as a pretext to other aims.”