In the release of quarterly results, Facebook reiterated its digital ad tool remains the “chicken that lays the golden eggs” of the trillion-dollar company’s revenue. But it is also the target of the biggest controversies involving the social network: the most recent concerns the banning of a pair of researchers from NYU (New York University), who were studying how political advertisements spread across the platform.
NYU researchers used plugin, target of suspension
Facebook does not check political ads served within its platform. This prompted two researchers at NYU’s Center for Cybersecurity for Democracy to develop a plugin called Ad Observatory.
The plugin — available on Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox — collects data on how political advertisements reach users, and assesses why they are targeted by such advertisements on Facebook. All information collected by Ad Observatory was open to journalists and other researchers.
But the page was taken down. Facebook not only suspended the two researchers, but took down the official profile of the Ad Observatory and everyone involved in the NYU project. This limits search access to the Ad Library and CrowdTangle — two important tools for monitoring how ads affect post shares.
Facebook has been warning the team since 2020
The drastic action was taken after several warnings made to researchers, according to a blog post written by Mike Clark, Director of Product Management at Facebook.
“We contacted the researchers a year ago, in the summer of 2020, and we said that extending the Ad Observatory would violate our Terms even before the tool was released,” says Clark. “In October, we sent them a formal notice that again warned them of the violation of our Terms of Service and gave them 45 days to comply with our request to stop data scraping. This deadline ended on November 30th […]”.
US senators and Mozilla criticize Facebook
US congressmen reacted angrily to the suspension of the NYU researchers. Senator Roy Wyden (D-OR) used Twitter to point out that the privacy protection motive to justify the ban is a Facebook bluff.
After years of abusing users’ privacy, it’s rich for Facebook to use it as an excuse to crack down on researchers exposing its problems. I’ve asked the FTC to confirm that this excuse is as bogus as it sounds. https://t.co/eHuPiVYFe9
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) August 4, 2021
“After abusing users’ privacy for years, it’s convenient for Facebook to use this as an excuse to ban researchers exposing the platform’s problems. I asked the FTC to confirm that this justification is as far-fetched as it sounds.” – @RonWyden
Senator Mark Warden, on the other hand, assesses the social network’s decision as “deeply troubling”:
“It’s long past time for Congress to act and bring more transparency to the murky world of online advertising, which continues to cause fraud and criminal conduct”
Mozilla, which makes the Ad Observatory plugin available, has joined the fray: the developer’s head of security, Marshall Erwin, said in a post on the company’s official blog that Facebook’s justification for banning researchers “doesn’t stop standing” .
The company responsible for the browser conducted several security tests to certify the extension within Firefox. The conclusion was that Ad Observatory respects the privacy of customers and does not collect sensitive personal data from Facebook users — only from ads and advertisers.
Facebook also claims that the extension collects data from users without permission, but Mozilla has denied this as well: “Ad Observatory doesn’t scrape data from your friends,” says Erwin.
With information: The Verge ,  and TechCruch