August 6, 2021
We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with Laura Edelson and NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy team, who were punished by Facebook on August 3nd for shedding light on the company’s impact on democracy. Facebook shut down the accounts of researchers running the Ad Observatory, a tool that organizes thousands of volunteers to monitor the ads that Facebook publishes. This observatory serves as a critical watchdog over a powerful corporation, while also advancing the cutting edge of scientific knowledge.
Ad Observer is a transparent, ethical, voluntary data donation program that invites users to install a browser plugin that collects information about the ads a user sees, the advertisers who have paid for them, and the reasons a user was targeted to see those ads. Facebook claims it shut down the NYU accounts to protect the privacy of users, ignoring the careful privacy protections Edelson and her team have implemented. The Ad Observer received approval from NYU’s research ethics review board, and Facebook users donate their data based on informed consent. The extension also underwent an independent privacy audit.
Though Facebook likes to remind people that an academic researcher played a role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal—in which an app covertly collected personally identifiable information about millions of users—the two cases have nothing in common. Unlike Cambridge Analytica, the NYU researchers have gone to great pains to protect user privacy. Indeed, the “privacy” Facebook seems to be protecting is that of its advertisers, rather than its users.
The Ad Observatory enables research that is critical to assessing whether Facebook is living up to its own transparency promises. It allows researchers to verify that Facebook’s Ad Library is publishing all the ads running on its platform. The Ad Observatory also collects information not available in Facebook’s own Library, including information on why ads are being targeted to specific users. This information is critically important to understanding potential manipulation, as well as the broader civic impacts of advertising, particularly political advertising.
In a remarkable step, yesterday the Acting Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection Samuel Levine wrote to Mark Zuckerberg to rebuke Facebook for using misleading claims about the nature of its consent decree with the FTC to justify punishing Edelson and her team. As Acting Director Levine wrote, “The FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission.”
We see Facebook’s actions against NYU as part of a long-standing pattern among large technology firms, all of whom have systematically undermined accountability and independent, public-interest research. A few among the many examples of these actions:
We are a group of technologists, researchers, and private citizens committed to a world where technology serves society for the common good. As we stand with Edelson and the NYU team, we also believe tech firms have shown they cannot be trusted to decide how their own businesses should be held to account. We therefore call for a number of actions from a variety of actors to rectify this situation.
We call on Facebook to:
We call on companies across the technology industry to:
We call on regulators to:
We call on independent technologists, researchers, and journalists to:
Please direct enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributors (affiliations are for identification purposes only):
Signatories (affiliations are for identification purposes only):