Facebook shuts down research, blames user privacy rules

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Last October, Facebook warned a group of social scientists from New York University that their research — known as the Ad Observatory, part of the Cybersecurity for Democracy Project — was in breach of the social network’s terms of service, because it used software to “scrape” information from Facebook without the consent of the service’s users. The company said that unless the researchers stopped using the browser extension they developed, or changed the way that it acquired information, they would be subject to “additional enforcement action.” Late Tuesday night, Facebook followed through on this threat by blocking the group from accessing any of the platform’s data, and also shutting down the researchers’ personal accounts and pages. In a blog post, the company said it was forced to do so because the browser extension violated users’ privacy. “While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be ignored,” Facebook said.

The NYU researchers responded that they have taken all the precautions they can to avoid pulling in personally identifiable information from users — including names, user ID numbers, and Facebook friend lists — and also pointed out that the thousands of users who signed up to help the Ad Observatory Project installed the group’s browser extension willingly, to help the scientists research the impact of the social network’s ad-targeting algorithms. “Facebook is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform,” Laura Edelson, one of the NYU researchers, told Bloomberg News in an email. “Worst of all, Facebook is using user privacy, a core belief that we have always put first in our work, as a pretext for doing this.” Edelson also said on Twitter that the Facebook shutdown has effectively cut off more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who got access to Facebook advertising data through the NYU project

Unauthorized access to private user data is a sensitive topic for Facebook. In the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, a political consulting firm acquired personally identifiable information on more than 80 million people from a researcher who gained access to it through a seemingly harmless Facebook app. The resulting furor eventually led to a $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for breaches of privacy, and the company promised it would never share the personal information of its users with third parties without stringent controls. The ripple effects of the FTC order — combined with the subsequent passing of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR — led to severe restrictions on the social network’s API (application programming interface), which other web services and software use to exchange data with the social network. And many of those restrictions also affected researchers like those at NYU.

In its Tuesday blog post and other statements on the same topic, Facebook points out that it has made efforts to share more data with researchers, including its own Ad Library (which also has an API), and a research partnership it created with several prominent sociologists, called Social Science One. But even some defenders of this project admit that it took almost three years for Facebook to even start sharing data with researchers under this program, and that the kinds of data it shares, and the restrictions placed on it, make it significantly less useful for research. Edelson told Protocol before the ban that Facebook offered the group and other researchers some advertising data, but refused to provide any information about how those ads were targeted to specific users, which made it impossible to come to any useful conclusions about the impact of its political advertising tactics.

Protocol has also pointed out that, according to Facebook itself, the majority of users whose information was being shared without their consent were advertisers, which of course was the whole point of the research in the first place. And some experts have argued that one of the main planks in Facebook’s defense for shutting down the NYU researchers — that the company was forced to do so because of the FTC order — is a legal smokescreen. Jonathan Mayer, a professor at Princeton who studies computer science and the law and is a former advisor to Senator Kamala Harris, said on Twitter that the FTC order only restricted Facebook itself, not individual users, from sharing data with third parties. “Facebook’s legal argument is bogus,” Mayer said. The order “restricts how *Facebook* shares user information. It doesn’t preclude *users* from volunteering information about their experiences on the platform, including through a browser extension.” Facebook told Wired magazine that the consent decree required it to develop a comprehensive program to protect user privacy, and that is what the NYU research group allegedly breached.

Here’s more on Facebook and data:

The NYU’s Ad Observatory isn’t the only research project using software to pull in data from Facebook: The Markup, a data-driven journalism startup run by former ProPublica reporter Julia Angwin, has a piece of software it calls the Citizen Browser, which — when installed voluntarily by Facebook users — pulls in data from their Facebook feeds, allowing The Markup to see what kinds of news and information are being targeted at them. The tool has led to a number of stories, including one about how Facebook has continued to push users to join partisan political groups despite promising Congress it would stop. Angwin told CJR The Markup plans to continue doing this research despite Facebook’s shutdown of the NYU project, and that it has been open about its methodology.

Facebook executives have also clashed with each other internally over how much of the social network’s data should be shared. According to a report from the New York Times, the founder of the software service CrowdTangle— which Facebook acquired in 2016 — recently announced that he was stepping down from running it and that the unit was being restructured, as a result of a dispute within Facebook’s senior ranks over how much the service should be revealing about the popularity of certain types of content. Some senior executives were unhappy, the Times said, that journalists were using CrowdTangle in ways that embarrassed the company, such as showing how widespread right-wing content is.

Rebekah Tromble, the director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University, wrote a research paper earlier this year about the challenges of getting data from platforms like Facebook and Twitter — both of which she has dealt with, as an advisor with the Social Science One group, and as the lead researcher on a project that is being done in partnership with Twitter. “While certain executives wish to share data with academics—to truly shed light on the good, the bad, and the ugly,” she writes, “others are much more cynical.” But the big problem, she says, “is risk-averse corporate lawyers who tend to win these debates, placing limitations on data sharing not because they see academic research as threatening, but because they fear liability.”

Other notable stories:

A group of senior journalists from the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, the Hollywood Reporter, CNN, and NBC News have launched a subscription news outlet called Puck that describes itself as “a new media company covering power, money, & ego.” The roster of participating writers at the outlet — which was founded by former Vanity Fair editor Jon Kelly and is backed by funding from investment firms TPG and 40 North — includes Matt Belloni, former editor of the Hollywood Reporter; former Atlantic and New Yorker writer Julia Ioffe; author and podcaster Baratunde Thurston; former Politico correspondent Tina Nguyen; and former CNN reporter Peter Hamby, who hosts a show on Snapchat.

Journalists at Politico are actively working on plans to unionize with the NewsGuild, Axios reports, one of the largest non-unionized newsrooms. A spokesperson for the company told Axios that Politico publisher Robert Allbritton “understands that the decision to form a union is the choice of the newsroom employees who would be impacted by it, and Politico would respect the process and the majority decision of those employees.”

The New York Times reported modest growth in the most recent quarter, adding 142,000 new digital subscribers in total — 77,000 for its News app and 65,000 for Cooking and Games. At the end of June, the paper says it had almost 8 million total subscribers, with 7 million paying for one or more of its digital products, 5.3 million of whom subscribed to its News app. The company reported $93 million in adjusted operating profit on $499 million in revenue, beating consensus estimates, and said it has $1 billion in cash on its books.

Punchbowl News, a company run by reporters Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer that publishes subscription political newsletters, reports that Axios is planning to launch a series of subscription products aimed at various policy sectors, similar to what Politico offers through PoliticoPro. Jim VandeHei and Roy Schwarz, the founders of Axios, helped create the Politico Pro newsletter model when they worked for Politico. Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer both used to work with VandeHei and Schwarz at Politico.

The Canadian government is considering two potential options for making digital platforms like Facebook and Google pay media companies for their journalism, but after the first phase of consultations, it isn’t clear which is the best way forward, the Toronto Star reports. A discussion paper from the government, published online Tuesday, says the first round of consultations with stakeholders — including media companies and digital platforms — was inconclusive, so it is moving to a second round. The first option the Australian model, where the platforms are required to negotiate deals with publishers or are forced into arbitration; the second would be to set up a fund for media companies and require the platforms to contribute a percentage of their Canadian revenue.

The Membership Puzzle Project, a research partnership between NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and the crowdfunded Dutch news outlet De Correspondent that started in 2017, is coming to an end next month, Rosen announced at a summit in New York, the Nieman Journalism Lab reported. “We’re not sad about it, and we didn’t run out of money, either. We planned it this way. Now is the right time to end,” he said. “The key part of the puzzle is the implied contract between the site and its members. What do the members give? What do they get? What do journalists give? And what do journalists get?” he added. ”The puzzle turned out to be more complicated than we thought.”

Ottawa Life magazine says it is standing by an unflattering portrait of the city’s police service it published in March, despite a defamation lawsuit from Chief Peter Sloly. The magazine said it plans to file a motion to dismiss the suit as “nothing more than an attempt to muzzle free speech about a troubled police force with lousy leadership,” according to a report by the Ottawa Citizen. Mark Bourrie, the lawyer representing the magazine, says he plans to file a motion to dismiss the suit as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Sloly filed the lawsuit in June after Ottawa Life published an article describing what it called “cancerous misconduct” involving the force’s treatment of sexual abuse allegations.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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