Facebook has decided against shutting down a research project that aims to uncover how politicians use the social network to target its users with ads, after widespread public criticism of the move.
Two week before the election, Facebook sent a warning letter to the Facebook Ad Observatory, a research project that tracks political ads and operates from the New York University Tandon School of Engineering.
The reason for the warning was a browser plugin called Ad Observer which allowed the researchers to collect ad targeting data from users and feed that anonymized information into a public database that would allow journalists and researchers to access details about how and where politicians were focusing their ad spend.
The letter said that if the NYU team didn’t disable their tool and delete all of the data collected by November 30, it would be forced to take “additional enforcement action.”
Facebook was strongly criticized for its decision, which came just two weeks before the highly contentious election, at a time when the Ad Observatory was already beginning to publish data it had collected about the tool.
But Facebook’s deadline passed at midnight Monday, and the tool is still live.
In fact, the number of people who have consented to share their data via Ad Observer has doubled since the news broke about Facebook’s letter, with more than 16,000 people now signed up.
A source at the Ad Observatory, who was granted anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the record, said that Facebook had contacted the researchers to set up a meeting, which is expected to take place next week.
A source at Facebook confirmed it contacted the researchers and that the two sides were planning to meet.
The last-minute reprieve comes after weeks of anger and frustration from researchers at NYU who felt that Facebook was picking on them because they wanted to protect themselves from potential legal issues if the Ad Observatory continued to publish the targeting data.
“We've started to publish the ads that Facebook’s own archive is missing. And we’ve started to publish anonymous targeting data. None of this data reveals anything private, but a lot of it doesn't make Facebook look great,” Laura Edelson, a researcher at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering who helps oversee the Ad Observatory project, told VICE News.
An example of the type of data gathered by the Ad Observer can be seen below.
The ad, which was banned or taken down from other platforms because it falsely claims that Biden is going to defund 911, was allowed to run on Facebook because the company allows candidates to run ads with misleading or false information.
The targeting data gathered by Ad Observer shows that the Trump campaign targeted this false information at suburban married women—a group of voters Trump begged to support him in the weeks leading up to the election.
Without Ad Observer, such data would never be made public.
Facebook says it is simply protecting its users by threatening to block this tool, claiming that the Ad Observer tool broke its terms and conditions because it could have potentially gathered information about friends of Ad Observer users who could not have given their consent.
But Ad Observatory says it doesn’t collect any data about users’ friends and some experts in ad targeting believe that Facebook’s real reason for wanting to shut down the tool is to protect itself from possible legal liability.
Facebook wants to “insulate itself from future legal risks because of leaking data” in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica sandal, Camerson Hickey, who works on algorithmic transparency at the National Conference on Citizenship, a Washington, DC-based non-profit, and who helped build the underlying technology for Ad Observer.
“The [NYU tool] is generating pushback from Facebook as it has gained prominence publicly because they have used it to perform its exact purpose, which is to identify flaws in the way that Facebook’s system works as well as provide additional transparency that is otherwise unavailable from Facebook directly,” Hickey told VICE News.
Facebook has been scrambling to recover from the criticism it faced in 2016 after it was revealed that political ads were used to target specific communities on Facebook without any insight into who was funding them.
The company launched a searchable ad library for political ads 18 months ago, but researchers have repeatedly pointed out the limitations of the tool and said that the company is simply not sharing enough information to allow them to sufficiently track political ads on the platform.
Edelson and her colleagues were already using Facebook’s Ad Library API to track who was purchasing political ads on Facebook, and described “a very good working relationship” with Facebook until this summer.
“We talked to the Ad Library team regularly, and we disclosed vulnerabilities when we found them,” she said.
But the researchers wanted to know more, so they built Ad Observer in order to circumvent Facebook’s limitations, and presented their plans to Facebook in a series of meetings in June.
According to Facebook, they made it clear from the outset that the tool would break the company’s terms and conditions and that if the researchers went ahead, there would be enforcement action taken.
The Ad Observer tool was launched in September, and a month later on October 16, Edelson and her team were sent a warning letter, telling them to stop using the tool by the end of November or face the consequences. Edelson said the letter “took us by surprise.”
Edelson says that the Ad Observatory has no intention of shutting down, but a source within Facebook—who was granted anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the record—said the company could simply “change our code” to prevent NYU’s tool from collecting any Facebook user information, pointing out that the company did something similar with another data scraping tool created by ProPublica last year.
As well as potentially seeing their Ad Observer tool broken, Edleson is concerned that Facebook may go further.
“We are concerned that Facebook might revoke our Ad Library API access,” she said, though a source at Facebook told VICE News this is currently not under consideration.
Part of the reason Edelson and her colleagues are so frustrated at Facebook’s actions and its attempt to portray it as the company protecting its users is that there are at least two other browser extensions in operation today which are virtually identical to Ad Observer, in that they capture Facebook user information to uncover targeting data that Facebook keeps private.
VICE News spoke to the operators of both these tools and both said they have never been contacted by Facebook regarding concerns about privacy and both said they couldn’t understand why Facebook was targeting Ad Observer.
“It's something of a mystery to us why the NYU project has been singled out in this way,” one of the operators told VICE News.
The names of the two groups are not being published because a source at Facebook said that if VICE News published the groups’ names, then “I’m going to send that name to our legal team and the same thing is going to happen to them.”
Facebook denies picking on NYU and said that it regularly sends legal letters to groups who are breaching its policies but it doesn’t publicize them. Facebook said it had shut down similar research projects in the past — though it wouldn’t name the research projects in question.
Facebook’s decision to contact the NYU researchers and not impose the Nov. 30 deadline could indicate that they may be willing to make some concessions about sharing targeting, which is the ultimate goal of all these researchers.
“Our goal is increased transparency for political advertising on the internet, ideally in law, but if not, through the platforms comprehensively self-regulating,” the operator of one of the browser extensions said. “Ironically, this is the same view that Facebook seems to hold.”