[Air-L] FB statement on banning NYU researchers for scraping

Daniel Thomas d.thomas at strath.ac.uk
Wed Aug 11 00:50:02 PDT 2021

And, here is the letter of support: 

> Standing with Laura Edelson in Support of Tech Industry Accountability Research
> August 6, 2021
> We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with Laura Edelson and NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy team, who were punished by Facebook on August 2nd for shedding light on the company’s impact on democracy. Facebook shut down the accounts of researchers running the Ad Observatory, a tool that organizes thousands of volunteers to monitor the ads that Facebook publishes. This observatory serves as a critical watchdog over a powerful corporation, while also advancing the cutting edge of scientific knowledge.
> Ad Observer is a transparent, ethical, voluntary data donation program that invites users to install a browser plugin that collects information about the ads a user sees, the advertisers who have paid for them, and the reasons a user was targeted to see those ads. Facebook claims it shut down the NYU accounts to protect the privacy of users, ignoring the careful privacy protections Edelson and her team have implemented. The Ad Observer received approval from NYU’s research ethics review board, and Facebook users donate their data based on informed consent. The extension also underwent an independent privacy audit.
> Though Facebook likes to remind people that an academic researcher played a role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal—in which an app covertly collected personally identifiable information about millions of users—the two cases have nothing in common. Unlike Cambridge Analytica, the NYU researchers have gone to great pains to protect user privacy. Indeed, the “privacy” Facebook seems to be protecting is that of its advertisers, rather than its users.
> The Ad Observatory enables research that is critical to assessing whether Facebook is living up to its own transparency promises. It allows researchers to verify that Facebook’s Ad Library is publishing all the ads running on its platform. The Ad Observatory also collects information not available in Facebook’s own Library, including information on why ads are being targeted to specific users. This information is critically important to understanding potential manipulation, as well as the broader civic impacts of advertising, particularly political advertising.
> In a remarkable step, yesterday the Acting Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection Samuel Levine wrote to Mark Zuckerberg to rebuke Facebook for using misleading claims about the nature of its consent decree with the FTC to justify punishing Edelson and her team. As Acting Director Levine wrote, “The FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission.” 
> We see Facebook’s actions against NYU as part of a long-standing pattern among large technology firms, all of whom have systematically undermined accountability and independent, public-interest research. A few among the many examples of these actions:
> In 2019 Facebook shut down a similar transparency tool created by the news organization ProPublica
> Google has recently fired and let go countless staff who published research about the risks of artificial intelligence
> Twitter shut down and delayed multiple research projects designed to reduce online hate and harassment in 2018 and 2019
> Amazon attempted to discredit and undermine research about discrimination resulting from their facial recognition algorithms
> Facebook has effectively dismantled the team running CrowdTangle, a tool used by journalists and researchers to examine public pages and groups
> We are a group of technologists, researchers, and private citizens committed to a world where technology serves society for the common good. As we stand with Edelson and the NYU team, we also believe tech firms have shown they cannot be trusted to decide how their own businesses should be held to account. We therefore call for a number of actions from a variety of actors to rectify this situation.
> We call on Facebook to:
> Reinstate Edelson and the NYU team’s access to all accounts that were recently deactivated
> Make comprehensive, systematic ad targeting data available to independent researchers on a continuous basis
> Rewrite Facebook’s terms of service and privacy policy to protect public-interest research
> We call on companies across the technology industry to:
> Join efforts to develop codes of conduct for providing responsible, ethical data access to independent researchers
> Develop high-quality standards for research data interoperability and portability (for APIs, datasets, etc). These standards should be reviewed and approved by organizations that are independent of platforms
> Support and comply with Universal Digital Ad Transparency (a.k.a. make all ad data publicly accessible to researchers), which many researchers called for last year
> Support independent efforts, both public interest and commercial, on tools that improve transparency into content and advertising networks
> We call on regulators to:
> Compel access to data for independent researchers
> Compel digital ad platforms to comply with Universal Digital Ad Transparency in a consistent, privacy-protecting way, so researchers and journalists can hold platforms accountable
> Prohibit companies from creating policies that forbid responsible independent research
> Protect independent academic and journalistic research from prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or similar state laws, making it clear that US law protects and encourages this form of research
> Adopt regular audits of platforms’ transparency tools and reports, offering legal protections for researchers to conduct such inspections
> We call on independent technologists, researchers, and journalists to:
> Incorporate privacy reviews into the design of research projects that involve personal data, modeled on Edelson et al’s excellent example
> Reach out to state and federal policymakers to explain the value of your work and the need for transparency and data access
> Organize and participate in initiatives to develop codes of conduct that spell out best practices for platforms to provide responsible, ethical data access to independent researchers
> Please direct enquiries to edelson-solidarity at googlegroups.com.

On 11/08/2021 07:08, Joly MacFie wrote:
> CAUTION: This email originated outside the University. Check before clicking links or attachments.
> And, here is the response, via NYT.
> https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/10/theater/international-puppet-fringe-festival-nyc.html>> 
> By Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy
> We learned last week that Facebook had disabled our Facebook accounts and
> our access to data that we have been using to study how misinformation
> spreads on the company’s platform.
> We were informed of this in an automated email. In a statement, Facebook
> says we used “unauthorized means to access and collect data” and that it
> shut us out to comply with an order from the Federal Trade Commission to
> respect the privacy of its users.
> This is deeply misleading. We collect identifying information only about
> Facebook’s advertisers. We believe that Facebook is using privacy as a
> pretext to squelch research that it considers inconvenient. Notably, the
> acting director of the F.T.C.’s consumer protection bureau told Facebook
> last week that the “insinuation” that the agency’s order required the
> disabling of our accounts was “inaccurate.”
> “The F.T.C. is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts
> to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that
> mission,” the acting director, Samuel Levine, wrote to Mark Zuckerberg,
> Facebook’s founder and chief executive.
> Our team at N.Y.U.’s Center for Cybersecurity has been studying Facebook’s
> platform for three years. Last year, we deployed a browser extension we
> developed called Ad Observer that allows users to voluntarily share
> information with us about ads that Facebook shows them. It is this tool
> that has raised the ire of Facebook and that it pointed to when it disabled
> our accounts.
> In the course of our overall research, we’ve been able to demonstrate that
> extreme, unreliable news sources get more “engagement” — that is, user
> interaction — on Facebook, at the expense of accurate posts and reporting.
> What’s more, our work shows that the archive of political ads that Facebook
> makes available to researchers is missing more than 100,000 ads.
> There is still a lot of important research we want to do. When Facebook
> shut down our accounts, we had just begun studies intended to determine
> whether the platform is contributing to vaccine hesitancy and sowing
> distrust in elections. We were also trying to figure out what role the
> platform may have played leading up to the Capitol assault on Jan. 6.
> We are privacy and cybersecurity researchers whose careers are built on
> protecting users. That’s why we’ve been so careful to make sure that our Ad
> Observer tool collects only limited and anonymous information from the
> users who agreed to participate in our research. And it is also why we made
> the tool’s source code public so that Facebook and others can verify that
> it does what we say it does.
> We strongly believe we are not violating Facebook’s terms of service, as
> the company contends. But even if we had been, Facebook could have
> authorized our research. As Facebook declared in announcing the disabling
> of our accounts, “We’ll continue to provide ways for responsible
> researchers to conduct studies that are in the public interest while
> protecting the security of our platform and the privacy of people who use
> it.”
> Our research is responsible and in the public interest. We’ve protected the
> privacy of our volunteers. Essentially, our ad tool collects the ads our
> volunteers see on their Facebook accounts, plus information provided by
> Facebook about when and why they were shown the ads and who paid for them.
> These ads are seen by the specific audience the advertiser targets.
> This tool provides a way to see what entities are trying to influence the
> public, and how they’re doing it. We think that’s important to democracy.
> Yet Facebook has denied us important access to continue to do much of our
> work.
> One of the odd things about this dispute is that while Facebook has barred
> us from research tools available to users and other academic researchers,
> it has not blocked our Ad Observer browser either by technical or legal
> means. It is still operational, and we are still collecting data from
> volunteers.
> Still, by shutting us off from its own research tools, Facebook is making
> our work harder. This is unfortunate. Facebook isn’t protecting privacy.
> It’s not even protecting its advertisers. It’s protecting itself from
> scrutiny and accountability.
> The company suggests the Ad Observer is unnecessary, that researchers can
> study its platform with tools the company provides. But the data Facebook
> makes available is woefully inadequate, as the gaps we’ve found in its
> political ad archive prove. If we were to rely on Facebook, we simply could
> not study the spread of misinformation on topics ranging from elections to
> the Capitol riot to Covid-19 vaccines.
> By blocking us from its platform, Facebook sent us a message: It wants to
> stop us from examining how it operates.
> We have a message for Facebook: The public deserves more transparency about
> the systems the company uses to sell the public’s attention to advertisers
> and the algorithms it employs to promote content. We will keep working to
> ensure the public gets that transparency.
> -----------------------
> Laura Edelson is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at New York
> University’s Tandon School of Engineering, where Damon McCoy is an
> associate professor of computer science and engineering. They are
> affiliated with the nonpartisan research group Cybersecurity for Democracy.
> On Wed, Aug 4, 2021 at 7:36 PM Joly MacFie <joly at punkcast.com> wrote:
>> [if anyone already mentioned this, I missed it]
>> https://about.fb.com/news/2021/08/research-cannot-be-the-justification-for-compromising-peoples-privacy/>>>
>> Research Cannot Be the Justification for Compromising People’s Privacy
>> August 3, 2021
>> By Mike Clark, Product Management Director
>> For months, we’ve attempted to work with New York University to provide
>> three of their researchers the precise access they’ve asked for in a
>> privacy protected way. Today, we disabled the accounts, apps, Pages and
>> platform access associated with NYU’s Ad Observatory Project and its
>> operators after our repeated attempts to bring their research into
>> compliance with our Terms. NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political
>> ads using unauthorized means to access and collect data from Facebook, in
>> violation of our 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.
>> The researchers gathered data by creating a browser extension that was
>> programmed to evade our detection systems and scrape data such as
>> usernames, ads, links to user profiles and “Why am I seeing this ad?”
>> information, some of which is not publicly-viewable on Facebook. The
>> extension also collected data about Facebook users who did not install it
>> or consent to the collection. The researchers had previously archived this
>> information in a now offline, publicly-available database.
>> We offer researchers <https://research.fb.com/ a number of privacy-protective
>> methods
>> <https://about.fb.com/news/2021/01/increasing-transparency-around-us-2020-elections-ads/ to
>> collect and analyze data. We welcome research that holds us accountable,
>> and doesn’t compromise the security of our platform or the privacy of the
>> people who use it. That’s why we created tools like the Ad Library and
>> launched initiatives like Data for Good <https://dataforgood.fb.com/ and Facebook
>> Open Research & Transparency (FORT <https://fort.fb.com/ — to provide
>> privacy-protected APIs and data sets for the academic community.
>> We told the researchers a year ago, in summer of 2020, that their Ad
>> Observatory extension would violate our Terms even before they launched the
>> tool. In October, we sent them a formal letter notifying them of the
>> violation of our Terms of Service and granted them 45 days to comply with
>> our request to stop scraping data from our website. The deadline ended on
>> November 30, long after Election Day. We continued to engage with the
>> researchers on addressing our privacy concerns and offered them ways to
>> obtain data that did not violate our Terms.
>> Earlier this year, we invited researchers, including the ones from NYU, to
>> safely access US 2020 Elections ad targeting data
>> <https://research.fb.com/blog/2021/02/introducing-new-election-related-ad-data-sets-for-researchers/ through
>> FORT’s Researcher Platform. This offered the Ad Observatory researchers a
>> more comprehensive data set than the one they created by scraping data on
>> Facebook. The researchers had the opportunity to use the data set, which is
>> designed to be privacy-protective, instead of relying on scraping, but they
>> declined.
>> We made it clear in a series of posts
>> <https://about.fb.com/news/2021/04/how-we-combat-scraping/ earlier this
>> year that we take unauthorized data scraping seriously, and when we find
>> instances of scraping we investigate and take action to protect our
>> platform. While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the
>> ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be
>> ignored and should be remediated.
>> Collecting data via scraping is an industry-wide problem that jeopardizes
>> people’s privacy, and we’ve been clear about our public position
>> <https://about.fb.com/news/2021/04/how-we-combat-scraping/ on this as
>> recently as April. The researchers knowingly violated our Terms against
>> scraping — which we went to great lengths to explain to them over the past
>> year. Today’s action doesn’t change our commitment to providing more
>> transparency
>> <https://about.fb.com/news/2021/01/increasing-transparency-around-us-2020-elections-ads/ around
>> ads on Facebook or our ongoing collaborations with academia. We’ll continue
>> to provide ways for responsible researchers to conduct studies that are in
>> the public interest while protecting the security of our platform and the
>> privacy of people who use it.
>> --
>> --------------------------------------
>> Joly MacFie  +12185659365
>> --------------------------------------
>> -
> --
> --------------------------------------
> Joly MacFie  +12185659365
> --------------------------------------
> -
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My normal working hours are 09:00-18:00 Glasgow Monday-Friday.
Meeting hours 09:30-12:00 and 13:30-17:30.

Dr Daniel Thomas, Chancellor's Fellow (Lecturer/Assistant Professor)
Room LT14.03, Department of Computer and Information Sciences,
University of Strathclyde.
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