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Facebook wants to shut down NYU research project to political advertising targeting

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Demands that a New York University research project stop collecting data on its political advertising targeting practices and set up a fight against scholars trying to study the platform without the company’s permission.

The controversy is NYU, a project launched last month by a college engineering school that recruited more than 6,500 volunteers to use a browser extension specially designed to collect data about political advertising displayed by Facebook. It is related to AdObservatory.

Facebook said in a letter sent to researchers behind New York University Abu Dhabi on October 16 that the project violated the terms of service banning the collection of large amounts of data from the site. ..

A letter written by Facebook’s privacy policy officer, Allison Hendrix, states that “scraping tools, no matter how well-meaning, are not an authorized means of gathering information from us.” If the university does not finish the project and does not delete the data it collects, she writes, “it may be subject to additional coercion.”

The clash between social media giants and major research universities occurs when there is increased scrutiny of political advertising on social media prior to next month’s US elections. Facebook has announced in recent weeks that it will ban new political ads before the election day and will suspend all political ads indefinitely that night to prevent the spread of paid false information about election results.

Following anger about the opaque nature of political ads in the 2016 presidential election, Facebook launched on the platform with information such as who paid for the ad, when the ad appeared, and the geographic location of the people who saw the ad. We have launched an archive of ads to be posted. .. However, the library does not contain any information about targeting that determines who will see your ad.

The researchers behind NYU Ad Observatory search journalists, researchers, policy makers, and others for political ads by state or contest to fund messages and ads that target specific audiences. He said he would like to provide the ability to see how.

Facebook’s request for the project to stop collecting is for advertising, including Senator Amy Klobuchar (Democratic Party of Minnesota), who sponsors a bill called the Honest Advertising Act that requires more transparency in online political advertising. We have gathered opposition from supporters who increase transparency.

“It’s unacceptable that Facebook makes it difficult for Americans to get information about online political advertising during the elections,” Klobuchar said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. Social media platforms have promised to make online advertising more transparent, she said, but Facebook’s threatened behavior towards NYU is “further evidence of inadequate voluntary standards.” ..

After the version of this article was published, Facebook said in a statement to the journal that it would take no action on data collection for the NYU project until the elections were over.

Facebook has previously made political advertising more transparent than traditional media and rival social platforms, and automatic collection of data from activities on your platform is unacceptable privacy, even with your permission. He said it poses a threat.

In a statement to the journal, Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said, “We notified New York University a few months ago that we were violating our terms as we proceeded with a project to get people’s Facebook information.” As stated, if the project does not stop voluntarily, Facebook will make technical changes to its own code that will prevent NYU researchers from collecting data.

It was a difficult area for Facebook to give outsiders access to the data on that platform. Following the turmoil against Cambridge Analytica, a company that gained unauthorized access to Facebook user data for political profiling in 2016, the Federal Trade Commission urged Facebook to curb third-party data access. Facebook has imposed a set of restrictions on the ability of outsiders to retrieve, analyze and use the data collected from the platform. The company may file proceedings against entities that send legal requests and accuse them of seeking data access for fraudulent purposes.

What restrictions can be imposed on social media data scraping has been the subject of proceedings in recent years, and the platform has both the right and responsibility to prevent unauthorized use of user-generated data. Claims.

The NYU project has already collected the targeting data behind over 200,000 ads. Researchers say the publicly available archive of political ads created by Facebook after the 2016 election has exposed areas where the system should not be able to record ads.

Facebook is grateful to NYU researchers for their efforts to improve their ad library, but said it does not support violations of the rule.

Laura Edelson, a researcher at New York University’s Tandon Institute of Technology and helping oversee the AdObservatory project, said: “The only thing that encourages us to stop doing this is if Facebook does it ourselves, and we ask them to do so.”

A Facebook letter to New York University points out that it has set up an official academic partnership to investigate the impact of the site on voters during the 2020 U.S. elections, making information available to outside researchers. Defended the effort to make.

Rebecca Tromble, a researcher at George Washington University who participates in a program approved by the company, said Facebook deserves the credit of its own research initiative, but added that it disagrees with action on the New York University project. It was.

“Too much important information is trapped behind Facebook’s walled garden,” said Tromble, director of the George Washington Institute for Data, Democracy and Political Science. “And efforts like Ad Observatory play an important role in breaking down these barriers.”

Correction and amplification
Rebekah Tromble is the director of the George Washington University Institute for Data, Democracy and Political Science. Earlier versions of this article mistakenly stated that her title was Deputy Director and misidentified the school as Georgetown University. (Corrected on October 23)

Write to Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com Jeff Horwitz

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