Facebook’s decision to shut down accounts linked to a disinformation research project last week sparked widespread outcry from critics of the company – and now Congress is getting involved.
A handful of lawmakers criticized the move at the time, criticizing Facebook for being hostile to efforts to make the platform’s opaque algorithms and ad targeting methods more transparent. Researchers believe that studying these hidden systems is crucial work to better understand the flow of political disinformation.
The company specifically punished two researchers with NYU Cyber Security for Democracy Project who works on Advertising observer, an actively participating 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 pushing Facebook for more responses. 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 as to why the company closed the accounts researchers and how they violated the platform terms. service and user privacy compromised. Lawmakers sent the letter on Friday.
“While we agree that Facebook must protect user privacy, it is also imperative that Facebook allow credible academic researchers and journalists like those involved in the Ad Observatory project to conduct independent research that will help understand how the business can better fight against disinformation, disinformation and other harmful activity that proliferates on its platforms, ”wrote the senators.
Lawmakers have long urged the company to be more transparent about political advertising and disinformation, especially after Facebook was found to disseminate election disinformation in 2016. These concerns were only exacerbated by the substantial role of the platform in spreading election misinformation leading to the insurgency on the U.S. Capitol, where Trump supporters attempted to overturn the vote.
In a blog post defending its decision, Facebook cited respect for the FTC as one of the reasons the company cut the accounts. But the FTC called Facebook’s bluff last week in a letter to Zuckerberg, noting that nothing in the agency’s guidance for the company would prevent it from encouraging research in the public interest.
“Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, particularly around surveillance-based advertising,” wrote Samuel Levine, FTC acting director for the Bureau of Consumer Protection.