Facebook seeks shutdown of NYU research into political ad targeting

Facebook seeks shutdown of NYU research into political ad targeting

Facebook Inc. is demanding that a New York University research project cease collecting data about its political-ad-targeting practices, setting up a fight with academics seeking to study the platform without the company’s permission.

The dispute involves the NYU Ad Observatory, a project launched last month by the university’s engineering school that has recruited more than 6,500 volunteers to use a specially designed browser extension to collect data about the political ads Facebook shows them.

In a letter sent Oct. 16 to the researchers behind the NYU Ad Observatory, Facebook said the project violates provisions in its terms of service that prohibit bulk data collection from its site.

“Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us,” said the letter, written by a Facebook privacy policy official, Allison Hendrix. If the university doesn’t end the project and delete the data it has collected, she wrote, “you may be subject to additional enforcement action.”

The clash between the social-media giant and a major research university comes at a time of heightened scrutiny over political advertising on social media ahead of next month’s U.S. election.

Facebook in recent weeks has said it would bar new political ads ahead of Election Day and suspend all political ads indefinitely that evening to prevent the spread of paid misinformation about the election outcome.

Following a furor about the opaque nature of political advertising in the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook launched an archive of advertisements that run on its platform, with information such as who paid for an ad, when it ran and the geographic location of people who saw it. But that library excludes information about the targeting that determines who sees the ads.

The researchers behind the NYU Ad Observatory said they wanted to provide journalists, researchers, policymakers, and others with the ability to search political ads by state and contest to see what messages are targeted to specific audiences and how those ads are funded.

Facebook’s demand that the project stop its collection drew opposition from proponents of greater ad transparency, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesoate, a sponsor of a bill called the Honest Ads Act that would mandate greater transparency in online political advertising.

“It’s unacceptable that in the middle of an election, Facebook is making it harder for Americans to get information about online political ads,” Ms. Klobuchar said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. Social media platforms have pledged to make online advertising more transparent, she said, but Facebook’s threatened action against NYU “is further evidence that voluntary standards are insufficient.”

After a version of this article was published, Facebook said in a statement to the Journal that it wouldn’t take any action on the NYU project’s data collection until well after the election.

Facebook earlier said that it already offers more transparency into political advertising than either traditional media or rival social platforms, and that the automated collection of data from users’ on-platform activity — even with their permission — poses an unacceptable privacy threat…Read more>>