Facebook Silence Researchers: How This Affects You

Facebook controls terms of service, not governing bodies.

**Update 2 06/08/21: The Information also reported this week that Facebook has bulked up their artificial intelligence researcher team to find ways to inject ads into WhatsApp by analyzing encrypted data without decrypting it. Like other tech giants such as Google and Microsoft, Facebook are tackling the latest in ad revenue generation, homomorphic encryption. Given that Facebook are using privacy Ts and Cs to their own ends, this probably isn’t good news for consumers.

**Update 1 06/08/21: Damian Collins, former Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee chairman seem to agree with PCGuide. The same man who led the investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal has accused Facebook of protecting their own interests before stating the following for the BBC:

“To say that it’s to protect users’ data is laughable – the academic project doesn’t scrape user data, it allows users to opt in and voluntarily donate information about the ads they see on Facebook,”

Senate committee chairmen Ron Wyden also isn’t happy about Facebook trying to control it’s own narrative:

**Original story**

Facebook has removed the account of New York University researchers following confirmation that they had been crowdsourcing data on political ad targeting via a browser extension. Although it sounds questionable, said researchers haven’t actually done anything wrong. It makes the PC Guide team wonder if Facebook (and other social media for that matter) are trying to control their own ecosystems and create a false narrative for its users. This is where you and I come in.

First, let’s take a look at Mike Clarks’ (Product Management Director) official blog post on the matter and break it down a little. It opens with:

“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.”

Facebook: Information Moguls?

Thank goodness for Facebook looking after our privacy right? Wrong. Facebook thrives and makes insane amounts of money from your information, which is why a 2019 consent decree was imposed in 2019 alongside a $5 billion fine. We can understand Facebook being overprotective after receiving such a weighty fine, but the company provides information scraping services as a business proposition in the first place. They are the big kids in the school ground of information profiteering enforcing their own rules on a game of basketball, using their past infringement run-ins as justification.

Facebook Logo

What we are seeing here is Facebook protecting secrets. The NYU researchers used a self-developed browser extension called ‘Ad Observer’, which seeks permission from users to send over the ads that they see as well as the ‘Why Am I Seeing This Ad’ widget to researchers. There’s no understanding scraping and everything is agreed with the user of Ad Observer beforehand, it’s the whole point of the extension. This is a third-party reporting on what they see on Facebook, thus it’s not a privacy issue. Think of it as Ad Observer surfing alongside users and recording any ads served, it’s as simple as that. Scraping it’s an automated process that scrolls through websites and figures out how they work, which is not the case here.

Their Terms of Service Are Quite General

Facebook spokesperson, Joe Osborne has confirmed since that the conflict isn’t due to the consent decree, rather it’s own privacy stipulations that have triggered action from Facebook. Specifically, he’s referring to the following part of FB’s terms of service

“You may not access or collect data from our Products using automated means (without our prior permission).” 

It’s a bit of a stretch to enforce this on Ad Observer considering Facebook’s current practices of providing tools for companies that automate data collection in the first place. Ad Observer simply collects data about the Ad in-frame, not what the user had for breakfast. Facebook could quite simply change its privacy policy or grant an exception on a very general statement. Marshall Erwin, Mozilla’s chief security officer (Of the popular web browser Firefox) confirmed in a recent blog post why Facebook are out of line:

“Facebook claims the accounts were shut down due to privacy problems with the Ad Observer.  In our view, those claims simply do not hold water. We know this, because before encouraging users to contribute data to the Ad Observer, which we’ve done repeatedly, we reviewed the code ourselves.”

Protect Your Privacy

Privacy is a big issue online these days, which is why PC Guide would always suggest using a VPN that protects your online footprint by masking your IP Address to third parties. We can recommend some great ones here, some of which also include robust adblocking. The main thing to take away from this situation is that Facebook and other social media giants are currently in control of their own narrative when it comes to privacy, and they don’t want the public to know how their ads or information selling works. A $5 billion fine isn’t gifted, it’s earned. Whilst content decrees police these titans to an extent, they are still very much in control of their own ecosystem and decide who accesses your information. It’s always wise to be aware of such issues to protect yourself online.