Facebook: Damian Collins and US politicians criticise data ban

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Facebook’s decision to block access to some academics researching political ads and disinformation has been criticised by UK and US politicians.

Damian Collins MP accused Facebook of shutting down legitimate research to protect its own interests.

And Senate committee chairmen Ron Wyden and Mark Warner also spoke out.

Facebook has accused researchers from New York University’s Cybersecurity for Democracy team of collecting user data without consent.

On Tuesday, the social network disabled their accounts and blocked access to the platform, saying the team’s Ad Observer browser extension breached its policies.

The team’s project asks people to install the extension, which then enables them to share information with researchers about the Facebook ads they see.

Cybersecurity for Democracy projects have included research into misleading political ads, right-wing misinformation and false claims about vaccines and Covid-19.

But Facebook’s product management director Mike Clark blogged that research should not happen at the expense of people’s privacy, and said they had violated the company’s terms of service.

“The researchers gathered data by creating a browser extension that was programmed to evade our detection systems and scrape data such as user names, ads, links to user profiles… some of which is not publicly viewable on the platform.”

He said the company had tried for months to provide the researchers with the access they had asked for in a “privacy-protected way”.

According to Facebook, the browser extension collected information about the publisher of each ad without their consent, including at least their first and last names, user name, Facebook ID, and link to profile photo.

The academics maintain that all they collect is data on advertisements.

Following Facebook’s decision, they have attracted influential political support.


Damian Collins MP

image sourceGetty Images

‘Deeply concerning’

Mr Wyden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, accused Facebook of hypocrisy and using privacy as an “excuse to crack down on researchers exposing its problems”.

And Mr Warner, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the action “deeply concerning”.

Mr Collins, former Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee chairman, who led its investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, accused Facebook of “protecting their own interests” instead of allowing independent scrutiny of its advertising tools.

“To say that it’s to protect users’ data is laughable – the academic project doesn’t scrape user data, it allows users to opt in and voluntarily donate information about the ads they see on Facebook,” he wrote.


Code review

Mozilla, the company behind the Firefox browser, has also blogged in support of the researchers.

It said it had reviewed the code in the Ad Observer extension, adding: “It collects ads, targeting parameters and metadata associated with the ads.

“It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers”.

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