FTC disputes Facebook reasoning for shutting down NYU disinformation project

The Federal Trade Commission denied that their consent decree had anything to do with Facebook's decision to end NYU's Ad Observatory.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has criticized Facebook for claiming that a consent decree handed down by the organization was the reason they had to shut down New York University's Ad Observatory.  

Facebook has faced significant backlash this week after they closed the researchers' accounts working for the Ad Observatory project, which let Facebook users download a browser plugin that allowed the researchers to see what kind of ads show up on someone's page. 

Facebook product management director Mike Clark defended the decision to shutter the project, writing that it was in violation of the website's Terms of Service and a privacy program demanded by a recent FTC order

But Samuel Levine, acting director of the FTC's consumer protection bureau, said Facebook was wrong to insinuate their decision had anything to do with the FTC. 

"The FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission. While I appreciate that Facebook has now corrected the record, I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter," Levine said. 

"Only last week, Facebook's General Counsel, Jennifer Newstead, committed the company to 'timely, transparent communication to BCP staff about significant developments.' Yet the FTC received no notice that Facebook would be publicly invoking our consent decree to justify terminating academic research earlier this week."

Levine explained that the consent decree does not stop Facebook from creating exceptions for "good-faith research in the public interest", and he noted that the FTC "supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising."

"While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope that the company is not invoking privacy -- much less the FTC consent order -- as a pretext to advance other aims," Levine wrote. 

The two researchers behind the NYU project, Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, are still fighting to have their Facebook accounts restored so that they can continue their work tracking political advertising on the platform. The tool, and a corresponding feature that shares information about political ads on Facebook, has been used widely by journalists and researchers. 

Alex Abdo, litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said Facebook was relying on an intentionally "misguided argument" that the consent decree handed down by the FTC requires Facebook "to shut down even good-faith and privacy-preserving research."

"Now that the FTC has rejected this claim, Facebook should formally establish an exception to its terms of service for research that protects the privacy and serves the public interest," Abdo said. 

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