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Is Facebook shutting down its critics?

Facebook recently banned and restricted the profiles of several New York University (NYU) researchers. The individuals targeted were studying the spread of misinformation through advertising on the platform. The company claimed that they were only acting “in line with the privacy program under the FTC Order” — but no one’s convinced. So why is Facebook doing this? And why should you be worried?

Is Facebook shutting down its critics?

The story so far

Facebook restricted the social media profiles of NYU researchers Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, along with a number of their colleagues. They were all working with the Cybersecurity for Democracy group, investigating the way political ads are used on Facebook.

To collect data for their research, the academics used Ad Observatory, a browser plug-in that allows volunteers to consensually share their Facebook data.

In response, Facebook closed the researchers’ accounts.

How did Facebook justify the ban?

Facebook explained that the decision was made to protect user privacy, stating: “Research is not an excuse to break privacy rules and scrape user data — no matter the intent. As most will remember, we paid a $5 billion fine to the FTC for a developer scraping data under the auspices of ‘research’.”

Elaborating further, Mike Clark, Facebook’s Product Management Director, wrote:

“We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order.”

The problem with Facebook’s justification

The researchers refute this claim, and they seem to be on solid ground doing so. They say that Facebook just wanted to silence the people who can showcase the shortcomings of the platform.

Backing up the researchers, The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is among many criticizing Facebook’s decision. Samuel Levine, Acting Director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, explained that while the FTC order did require Facebook to create a privacy program, there was no provision that forced Facebook to ban the NYU researchers from their site. That claim was simply false.

Figures within Facebook’s Corporate Communications team have subsequently admitted that the FTC Order did not require them to target the researchers. Rather, these actions were taken due to Facebook’s own privacy program.

Is Facebook in the wrong here?

In some sense, no. Facebook is a privately-owned company and, in general, they can refuse their services to anyone, as long as it doesn’t breach discrimnation laws.

However, with Facebook’s platform increasingly being blamed for the rise of fake news, this whole incident looks pretty damning. Facebook seems to have been caught targeting researchers who were trying to bring to light the company’s role in facilitating the spread of misinformation.

Compounding the matter, they appear to have lied about their reasoning, using the bogus FTC justification. While the company broke no laws on this occasion, it looks like another example of Facebook prioritising self-preservation over the fight against fake news.

It’s just one more piece of bad press for a company that seems permanently mired in controversy. If you’re tired of data breaches, leaks, and poor privacy practices, it might be time to delete your Facebook account.

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