Senators Demand Answers From Zuckerberg Over Suspended Researchers

Read the fiery letter sent by three Democratic senators to Mark Zuckerberg after two researchers investigating political ad transparency on Facebook had their accounts suspended.
August 9, 2021, 9:01am
Senators Demand Answers from Zuckerberg Over Suspended Researchers
Mark Zuckerberg speaks virtually during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittees hearing, in March this year. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Mark Zuckerberg’s pigeonhole at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in Silicon Valley must be getting pretty full.

Days after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent him a scathing letter criticizing the company’s suspension of the accounts of two researchers investigating political ad transparency issues on the platform, a trio of Democratic senators have now written to the Facebook CEO asking him to explain his company’s actions.  

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“The opaque and unregulated online advertising platforms that social media companies maintain have allowed a hotbed of disinformation and consumer scams to proliferate, and we need to find solutions to those problems,” Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons and Mark Warner write in the letter, sent to Zuckerberg on Monday and obtained by VICE News.

The letter comes a week after Facebook took the controversial decision to shut down the accounts belonging to Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, two researchers working at the Cybersecurity for Democracy project at New York University.

The project centered around a browser extension called Ad Observer, which allowed the researchers to collect data on adverts shown to Facebook users who volunteered to install the tool.

The researchers’ work has highlighted gaping holes in Facebook’s political ad transparency tools and highlighted how Facebook’s algorithms were amplifying misinformation. Most recently, it helped track vaccine disinformation in coordination with the Virality Project, a group that tries to neutralize false narratives spreading on social media.

“It is imperative that Facebook allow credible academic researchers and journalists to conduct independent research that will help illuminate how the company can better tackle misinformation, disinformation, and other harmful activity that is proliferating on its platforms,” the senators wrote, describing the researchers’ work as “critical to strengthening American democracy.”

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The senators have given Zuckerberg a deadline of Aug. 20 to respond in writing to eight questions posed in the letter.

The first question posed by the senators seeks to establish the scale of the problem facing researchers and journalists on Facebook.

“How many accounts of researchers and journalists were terminated or otherwise disabled during 2021, including but not limited to researchers from the NYU Ad Observatory?” the senators wrote.

Facebook has defended its decision to remove the accounts belonging to the researchers and cut off their access to analytical tools like Crowdtangle by claiming the Ad Observer browser extension collected information about users who had not explicitly given their consent,

However the researchers claim the only information they are collecting is about the advertisers who placed the ad, and the senators are now seeking more clarification about this from Facebook.

“What evidence does Facebook have to suggest that this research exposed personal information of non-consenting individuals?” the senators write.

The letter also referenced the Federal Trade Commission's scathing response last week to Facebook’s initial claim that the suspensions were taken in order to comply with a privacy agreement it had signed with the regulator.

On Thursday Samuel Levine, the acting director for the Bureau of Consumer Protection, wrote to Zuckerberg to say the company’s claim was “inaccurate” and pointed out that if the company had contacted the FTC about its plan beforehand, the watchdog would have told the company the Ad Observer tool didn’t violate the privacy agreement.

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The senators now want to know why Facebook didn’t contact the FTC prior to suspending the accounts, and whether, in light of Levine’s letter, it was planning on reinstating the NYU researchers’ accounts.

Facebook did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

 You can read the full letter here: