An Open Letter from the NetGain Partnership
On the evening of Tuesday, August 3, 2021, Facebook abruptly shut down the accounts of a group of New York University researchers from Cybersecurity for Democracy, a project whose Ad Observer browser extension has done pathbreaking work tracking political ads and the spread of misinformation on the social media company’s platform.
In recent years, this team of researchers, led by Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, have brought to light systemic gaps in the Facebook Ad Library, identified misinformation in political ads, and studied Facebook’s amplification of divisive partisan campaigns. The opt-in browser extension uses data that has been volunteered by Facebook users and analyzes it in an effort to better understand the 2020 election and other subjects in the public interest. But on August 3, just hours after Edelson informed Facebook that she and McCoy were studying disinformation on the platform relating to the January 6 riots, Facebook abruptly shut down their accounts, as well as the account of a lead engineer on the project.
This action by Facebook also cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists, who relied on Ad Observer data for their research and reporting, including timely work on COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. This is only the latest example of Facebook’s attempts to curtail journalism and independent, academic research into their business and advertising practices.
In the absence of more fulsome disclosure and transparency from the social media industry, independent research efforts have been essential to understanding how disinformation spreads on digital platforms. This research also uncovered how advertisers exploit the industry’s ability to micro-target advertisements, the extent to which bad actors use these platforms to exacerbate societal rifts and inequities, and the costs to civil society.
As funders who collectively invest in the health of a vibrant internet that serves the public interest, we stand in support of Cybersecurity for Democracy and the community of independent researchers who study the impacts of social media in our democracy.
Why Does Ad Observer Matter?
Data donated through the Ad Observer has enabled critical research on Facebook’s platform, showing that highly partisan, misleading news sources receive more engagement on Facebook than more reliable news sources. Facebook has continued to accept ads promoting merchandise from extremist groups and militias, despite banning the practice; it has continued to publish discriminatory ads, despite a settlement agreement in which it committed not to accept them; and Facebook routinely missed political ads that meet its own definition for increased disclosure, according to research.
Facebook says it acted to protect its users’ privacy by shutting down the accounts of these researchers, but the Ad Observer tool collects only limited and anonymous information about the ads shown to users who have consented to sharing that information with Edelson and McCoy. When Facebook claims that the tool nonetheless violates the privacy of its “users,” the “users” it is referring to are the paying advertisers, who have already consented to making their ads public.
Facebook also claims that its hands are tied by a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) consent decree, which Facebook asserts requires it to take action against browser extensions that violate user privacy. In response, the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection took the rare step of responding publicly to Facebook’s action, noting, “The consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest. Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising.”
A Call for Action
Facebook’s latest actions undermine the independent, public-interest research and journalism that many of our foundations support. We believe research on platform and algorithmic transparency, like the work led by Cybersecurity for Democracy, is necessary to make evidence-based policy that is vital to a healthy democracy.
- Researchers and journalists who conduct research that is ethical, protects privacy, and is in the public interest should not face suspension from Facebook or any other platform. To that end, we ask Facebook to reinstate the accounts of the NYU researchers as a matter of urgency.
- We call on Facebook to amend its Terms of Service within the next three months, following up on an August 2018 call to establish a safe harbor for research that is ethical, protects privacy and is in the public interest.
- We urge government and industry leaders to ensure access to platform data for researchers and journalists working in the public interest.
Our foundations share a vision for an open, secure, and equitable internet space where free expression, economic opportunity, knowledge exchange, and civic engagement can thrive. This attempt to impede the efforts of independent researchers is a call for us all to protect that vision, for the good of our communities, and the good of our democracy.
Alberto Ibargüen, President and CEO, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation
Ellen Dorsey, Executive Director, Wallace Global Fund
Joe Goldman, President, Democracy Fund
John Palfrey, President, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Mark Malloch-Brown, President, Open Society Foundations
Mark Surman, Executive Director, Mozilla Foundation
Mike Kubzansky, CEO, Omidyar Network
Stephen King, CEO, Luminate
ABOUT THE NETGAIN PARTNERSHIP
The NetGain Partnership is a philanthropic collaboration seeking to advance the public interest in the digital age. Partners include the Ford Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Democracy Fund, Luminate, Mozilla Foundation, Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundations and Wallace Global Fund. It is guided by a set of principles that ensure technology is built, used and governed in a way that fosters opportunity and strengthens the role of philanthropy in creating a safer, more equitable world.
To learn more, visit www.NetGainPartnership.org.