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In a rare rebuke against a big U.S. tech company, the Federal Trade Commission has publicly slammed Facebook for lying about why it shut down researchers’ access to the platform earlier this week, and labeled the social network a “surveillance-based advertising” company.
The rebuke comes days after Facebook was widely criticized for suspending accounts belonging to researchers at New York University’s Cybersecurity for Democracy unit. The research team has highlighted major flaws in the company’s political advertising system and has been among the company’s biggest critics in recent years.
The company said at the time it had no choice but to shut down the research to avoid violating a privacy agreement it had struck with the regulator.
On Thursday night, the FTC said that wasn’t true.
“I write concerning Facebook’s recent insinuation that its actions against an academic research project conducted by NYU’s Ad Observatory were required by the company’s consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission… this is inaccurate,” Samuel Levine, the acting director for the Bureau of Consumer Protection, wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Levine didn’t stop there. He said he was “disappointed” in Facebook’s conduct, and pointed out that only last week the company had committed to informing his bureau about such significant decisions in a “timely and transparent” manner.
“Yet the FTC received no notice that Facebook would be publicly invoking our consent decree to justify terminating academic research earlier this week,” Levine wrote.
The regulator added that had Facebook given him a heads-up about its plan, “we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest.”
Facebook was widely criticized by experts, activists, and lawmakers for its decision to shut down the group’s work, especially given that they had just recently begun work on helping to track the dissemination of COVID-19 disinformation on the platform, which is a problem Facebook has been unable to cope with since the pandemic began.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar told VICE News the decision was “deeply troubling” while an activist group called the Real Facebook Oversight Group, said the decision was reminiscent of an “ authoritarian government… cracking down on its critics.”
Levine ended his letter to Zuckerberg with a warning, telling him to avoid using the company’s privacy deal with the FTC as a way of blocking other efforts to reveal issues with the platform.
“The FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising,” Levine wrote. “While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope that the company is not invoking privacy—much less the FTC consent order—as a pretext to advance other aims.”
Within hours of Facebook’s product management director Mike Clark writing a blog post explaining the company’s decision, experts were tearing apart the company’s argument regarding the FTC’s rules.
That blog post has not been taken down or amended, but a spokesperson for the company admitted to Wired this week that it was the company’s own privacy rules that led to the decision being taken.
“Everyone—including [Facebook spokesperson] Andy Stone—knows it was a BS tactic used to stifle important research that would hold the company accountable,” Askan Soltani, a former chief technology officer at the FTC and an adviser to the Obama administration, tweeted after the FTC’s letter was published.
One of the researchers involved, Laura Edelson, said this week the timing of the suspension was linked to the fact that hours before her accounts were shut down, she had informed the company that their research was now going to focus on how Facebook was used prior to and during the Jan. 6 riots.
Facebook told VICE News the suggestion “does not comport with reality”—though they declined to say what did trigger the decision this week, a full year after the company first began warning the researchers about the tool they were planning to use.
Now Edelson and her fellow researcher, Damon McCoy, are calling on Facebook ro reinstate their accounts.
“In light of the FTC’s clarification that Facebook is not required to take enforcement action, we call on Facebook to stop obstructing and instead assist our research and that of other researchers studying the platform in the public interest,” McCoy said in an emailed statement.
Facebook did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment on the FTC’s criticism or the calls to reinstate the researchers’ accounts.