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The Federal Trade Commission publicly denounced Facebook on Thursday for blocking researchers’ access to its social media platform and making “misleading claims” that it was doing so to comply with a privacy agreement with the US agency.
Facebook this week had suspended the accounts and pages of a group of New York University researchers studying political ad targeting practices. It argued that it was taking the action “to protect people’s privacy” in accordance with a consent decree it agreed with the FTC in 2019.
But in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Samuel Levine, acting director of the FTC’s consumer protection agency, criticized the social media company for failing to consult with the agency beforehand to determine whether the decree should be applied in this way and labeled as “false” claims.
“Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not prevent Facebook from making exceptions for good faith research in the public interest,” Levine wrote.
“Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising.”
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.
The spat marked the latest escalation in tensions between Facebook and the FTC after the social media company last month requested Lina Khan, its new chairman and a prominent critic of big tech companies, to step back from the decision to file an antitrust suit against the company. .
The NYU Ad Observatory launched an initiative last year to encourage volunteers to download a browser extension that allowed their researchers to collect data about the political ads shown to them on Facebook. In particular, the research focused on trends in ad finance, targeting and misinformation on the platform. About 16,000 volunteers sign up.
However, Facebook claimed Wednesday that the academics had used “unauthorized means” to scrape the data, relying on a consent decree it had agreed to as part of a $5 billion settlement with the FTC following the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal.
After their access to the ad data was broken, NYU academics accused Facebook of deliberately silencing them for exposing issues on the platform.
While the FTC’s Levine said Facebook had since “corrected the record” to acknowledge that the consent decree didn’t force it to remove the investigators, he added: “We hope the company doesn’t invoke privacy — let alone the FTC Consent Order – as a pretext to advance other causes . . . I am disappointed with how your company has behaved in this case.”
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