FTC scolds Facebook for citing it in researcher ban

FTC warns that consent decree doesn't justify banning academics' accounts

Facebook website on a computer screen

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a letter of protest to Facebook, warning the company should not have used its consent decree with the FCC to justify banning three researchers’ accounts this week.

The social media platform disabled three New York University academics’ accounts who worked on Ad Observer, which uses browser extensions to watch ads that Facebook and YouTube show users. The project attempts to understand how social media platforms decide which advertisements to show people, especially political content.

The extensions, which only look at what is inside an ad frame and do not collect data about comments or other user details, are installed and used with user consent.

In an August 3 blog post, Facebook accused the researchers of scraping data and said the project violated its terms of service. "We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order," it said.

Facebook's consent decree with the FTC stemmed from 2012 when the two parties settled over claims the social media giant misled users over its privacy protections. Last year, the FTC amended the privacy order to include additional provisions from a $5 billion settlement that the two parties reached in 2019 over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Facebook later clarified its position to Wired magazine, explaining that the violation was of its own privacy terms created in response to the FTC order rather than the FTC order itself.

However, Samuel Levine, acting director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, still took issue with Facebook's original statement citing the FTC privacy order. In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he said the company's insinuation that the FTC's consent decree required an account ban was inaccurate.

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

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He added Facebook had failed to check with the FTC before making its statement. "Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest," he said. "Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising."

Other organizations, including Mozilla, criticized Facebook's justification for the move. The organization reviewed the open source Ad Observer code twice before recommending it and was happy it did not violate user privacy.

"It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers," Mozilla said this week.

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