Facebook suspended the personal accounts of researchers who created a plugin to analyze political advertisements on the social network. The company claimed the measure was to comply with a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordinance. But the agency said that this is not the case.
The newspaper The Washington Post gained access to a letter sent by Samuel Levine, acting director of the US Consumer Protection Agency, to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. In it, the official says the social media company’s claims are “inaccurate.”
“If you had honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not prevent Facebook from making exceptions for bona fide searches done in the public interest,” Levine wrote.
The decree in question required the social network to implement a comprehensive privacy program. It was because of this program that Facebook brought down the work, not the measure of the FTC, admits Joe Osborne, the company’s spokesman, according to information from the Wired.
The FTC director also mentions this retreat. “While I appreciate the fact that Facebook corrected the information, I’m disappointed with the way your company handled this issue,” writes Levine.
Decree came after scandal on Facebook
How do you remember the Wired, such an ordinance was imposed by the FTC in 2019 and imposed a $5 billion fine for breaches of privacy. That step was taken right after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when data from millions of social network users was used to microtarget political ads.
The magazine also analyzes that the decree itself did not oblige Facebook to take any action, as the academic tool itself obtained the consent of volunteers.
But even the company’s framework for the extension is imprecise. Despite saying that the Ad Observer did data scraping, experts say that the technique used was not exactly that.
Bennett Cyphers, an expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains that the term, despite not having a precise definition, does not fit the way the plugin works – what it does is basically record the interactions made on the social network by a volunteer (which gave consent and installed the extension in your browser) and thus collect data on political advertising.
Another issue is that the plugin could take information from users who didn’t agree to sharing their information – people who liked political ads that were registered by the extension, for example.
But, according to a code review by Mozilla, the tool “does not collect personal information or posts about your friends” or “compile user profiles on its servers.” Only the information of the advertisements is registered.
That’s where another issue comes in, which is perhaps Facebook’s real concern: the privacy protection of advertisers themselves. The company may be looking to protect those who pay for political ads.
Plugin keeps working
A curious point of this whole issue is that the Ad Observer plugin itself continues to work, as noted in the Verge. The social network banned only the personal pages of the tool’s creators and the pages that advertised the Ad Observatory project (the name is similar, but different), which used data collected by the volunteers who installed the extension and, based on this information, made studies and analyses.
As such, it appears that it is much more of a retaliation for research than a protection of privacy. With the company’s decision, academics and the initiative will have more difficulty starting a new job of this type.
“The fight is with the Ad Observer, but they are cutting the Ad Observatory”, says Laura Edelson, a researcher at New York University and one of the creators of the extension, to Wired. “Surely Facebook could have taken steps to stop or limit Ad Observer. But they didn’t do any of that. What they did was stop our work that has nothing to do with this issue.”
With information: The Washington Post, The Verge, Wired