Mozilla, MacArthur and Ford foundations unite to oppose Facebook ban on NYU disinformation research

Mozilla, MacArthur and Ford foundations released a letter calling on Facebook to end their campaign against New York University researchers investigating disinformation on the social media site.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

Multiple high-profile foundations and philanthropic organizations came together to criticize Facebook for shutting down the accounts of New York University (NYU) researchers investigating advertising disinformation on the platform.  

The open letter was from the NetGain Partnership, including the Mozilla Foundation, Ford Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Omidyar Network and more. The group of foundations focus their work on fostering research into emerging technology.

The letter, signed by the CEOs and presidents of each organization, lambasts Facebook for their decision to close the accounts of NYU researchers Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy. The two led a team of researchers that ran the Ad Observer browser extension, which allowed Facebook users to let the researchers see what ads pop up when they visit the social media platform.

Facebook said in a statement on August 3 that the browser extension violated privacy regulations within Facebook and initially lied about being forced to shut down the project because of a deal with the FTC. The FTC later released its own letter slamming Facebook for lying about this and reiterating their order had no relation to the work of Edelson and McCoy. 

"The consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest," said Samuel Levine, acting director of the FTC's consumer protection bureau. "Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising."

The two researchers spent months going back and forth with Facebook. Still, their accounts were shut down as soon as they announced a potential examination of Facebook disinformation about the January 6 attack on Congress. 

The foundations called Edelson and McCoy's work "pathbreaking". They said it "brought to light systemic gaps in the Facebook Ad Library, identified misinformation in political ads, and studied Facebook's amplification of divisive partisan campaigns." 

"This action by Facebook also cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists, who relied on Ad Observer data for their research and reporting, including timely work on COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation," the open letter explained. 

"This is only the latest example of Facebook's attempts to curtail journalism and independent, academic research into their business and advertising practices. In the absence of more fulsome disclosure and transparency from the social media industry, independent research efforts have been essential to understanding how disinformation spreads on digital platforms. This research also uncovered how advertisers exploit the industry's ability to micro-target advertisements, the extent to which bad actors use these platforms to exacerbate societal rifts and inequities, and the costs to civil society."

The influential members of the NetGain Partnership said they stood behind NYU's Cybersecurity for Democracy project and the larger community of researchers who work on disinformation in social media.  

The group's work proved its worth by what it uncovered about Facebook's platform, the open letter said, noting that Ad Observer discovered "highly partisan, misleading news sources receive more engagement on Facebook than more reliable news sources."

Facebook, they said, continues to take in advertisements from extremist groups and militias while still publishing discriminatory ads. The social media giant also fails to catch political ads that potentially violate its own rules. 

Like NYU, Edelson and McCoy explained when the shutdown was announced; the open letter reiterates that Ad Observer only collected limited and anonymized information about the users who shared their ads. 

"When Facebook claims that the tool nonetheless violates the privacy of its 'users,' the 'users' it is referring to are the paying advertisers, who have already consented to make their ads public," the open letter said. 

"Facebook's latest actions undermine the independent, public-interest research and journalism that many of our foundations support. We believe research on platform and algorithmic transparency, like the work led by Cybersecurity for Democracy, is necessary to make evidence-based policy that is vital to a healthy democracy." 

The group demanded Facebook urgently reinstate the accounts attached to the project and change its Terms of Service within the next three months to allow safe harbor for research that is "ethical, protects the privacy and is in the public interest."

"Our foundations share a vision for an open, secure, and equitable internet space where free expression, economic opportunity, knowledge exchange, and civic engagement can thrive," the open letter said. 

"This attempt to impede the efforts of independent researchers is a call for us all to protect that vision, for the good of our communities and the good of our democracy."

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