Facebook’s decision to close accounts connected to a misinformation research project last week prompted a broad outcry from the company’s critics — and now Congress is getting involved.
A handful of lawmakers criticized the decision at the time, slamming Facebook for being hostile toward efforts to make the platform’s opaque algorithms and ad targeting methods more transparent. Researchers believe that studying those hidden systems is crucial work for gaining insight on the flow of political misinformation.
The company specifically punished two researchers with NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project who work on Ad Observer, an opt-in browser tool that allows researchers to study how Facebook targets ads to different people based on their interests and demographics.
In a new letter, embedded below, a trio of Democratic senators are pressing Facebook for more answers. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Mark Warner (D-VA) wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking for a full explanation on why the company terminated the researcher accounts and how they violated the platform’s terms of service and compromised user privacy. The lawmakers sent the letter on Friday.
“While we agree that Facebook must safeguard user privacy, it is similarly imperative that Facebook allow credible academic researchers and journalists like those involved in the Ad Observatory project to conduct independent research that will help illuminate how the company can better tackle misinformation, disinformation, and other harmful activity that is proliferating on its platforms,” the senators wrote.
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Lawmakers have long urged the company to be more transparent about political advertising and misinformation, particularly after Facebook was found to have distributed election disinformation in 2016. Those concerns were only heightened by the platform’s substantial role in spreading election misinformation leading up to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, where Trump supporters attempted to overturn the vote.
In a blog post defending its decision, Facebook cited compliance with FTC as one of the reasons the company severed the accounts. But the FTC called Facebook’s bluff last week in a letter to Zuckerberg, noting that nothing about the agency’s guidance for the company would preclude it from encouraging research in the public interest.
“Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising,” Samuel Levine, the FTC’s acting director for the Bureau of Consumer Protection, wrote.