The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Technology 202: Facebook shuttered a crucial tool for oversight. Lawmakers say it just made their jobs harder

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with Aaron Schaffer

At a high-stakes hearing just after the 2020 election, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) grilled Mark Zuckerberg about data that showed Facebook mislabeled tens of thousands of political ads. The information came from a tool developed by researchers at New York University, which for over a year has been one of the preeminent resources for shining light on the notoriously opaque tech giant. 

Facebook had just threatened to shut off the project, now called the Ad Observatory, and Klobuchar was bewildered. “Why would you not support this project?” she asked Zuckerberg.

Her frustration grew this week after Facebook cut off the researchers’ access to ad data, essentially killing the tool, which journalists and academics have widely used to track Facebook’s lucrative and powerful digital advertising business. 

The project’s researchers have regularly briefed staffers and lawmakers in the House and Senate and officials at agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, said one of the project members, Laura Edelson.

“The NYU team provided valuable data about advertising on Facebookdata that Facebook has consistently refused to provide,” said Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor at Princeton who previously served as a tech and policy adviser to then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris.

The social networking giant announced in a blog post Tuesday that it had disabled the researchers’ accounts, saying it took the step to “protect people’s privacy and comply with a settlement it struck with the FTC over allegations that it violated users’ privacy.  The tool collects data on what political ads are being shown to users and why those ads are targeted to them, removing identifying information from the data. 

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement that the company “gave NYU ample time to come into compliance with our terms, and outlined that we would take an enforcement action if they failed to come into compliance.” 

He added, “Any insinuation that this was an abrupt removal of access or retaliation does not comport with reality.”

The FTC on Thursday dismissed as “inaccurate” Facebook's assertion the move was necessary for it to comply with its privacy agreement with the agency in a letter to Zuckerberg. 

“Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest,” wrote Samuel Levine, acting director for the bureau of consumer protection. 

The decision marks a setback for policymakers who have relied on the data to scrutinize the tech giant’s practices, including during the 2020 campaign, when the project helped shed light on shadowy ad campaigns and spending by key figures. 

The move drew swift rebukes from lawmakers, free speech advocates and other researchers, who said restricting researchers’ access to the data could hamstring efforts to bring transparency and accountability to Facebook.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) told The Technology 202 that time and again independent researchers have led the way in illuminating the ways in which online advertising has become a key vector for online scams, political misinformation and voter suppression campaigns by a wide range of bad actors.

He added: “In all of these cases, independent researchers were identifying misuse of these platforms well ahead of the platforms themselves driving the policy discussion and public debate.”

Lawmakers have fiercely defended the value of the project’s data, which has been referenced in congressional letters, hearings and lawmakers’ public remarks.

During the run-up to the 2020 elections, leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to Zuckerberg objecting to the company’s earlier attempt to shutter the program, calling the data “crucial for holding both advertisers and Facebook accountable.” In his own written questioning of Zuckerberg after the election, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the project “enables accountability.” 

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who chairs the Energy Committee and is leading an investigation into misinformation across social media platforms, took strong exception to Facebook’s decision on Wednesday.

“These are the actions of a company that clearly has something to hide about how dangerous misinformation and disinformation is spreading on its platform,” he told The Technology 202.

And the censure has been bipartisan. 

“America was born on research and innovation, and Silicon Valley in particular benefited from such efforts, said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). It's extremely concerning that Facebook is seeking to censor and block those who try to learn more about their practices.”

Edelson, one of the project’s lead researchers, said Facebook’s decision has not only kneecapped her team’s ability to hold the company accountable, but also its ability to share findings with officials in Washington.

“It’s just gotten a lot harder for me to make data available to the public and to lawmakers and regulators, and that was something I regularly did,” said Edelson, a PhD candidate at NYU, calling it “a blow to oversight.”

Her frequent consultations included working with Klobuchar on her legislation to set standards around political ad disclosures online, which Facebook has backed.

“As we face threats to our democracy, we need more transparency from online platforms, not less,” Klobuchar said in a statement, adding that she was “deeply troubled by the news.

Edelson said Facebook’s decision to shut the researchers down came swiftly after they notified the company that they were looking into the disinformation that precipitated the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. In a May report, Facebook's Oversight Board asked the company to look into its role in the event, a task it declined. 

She said they had planned a “case study” that, among other things, would look into how calls for violence by partisan media may have stoked outrage on Facebook ahead of the riot. 

But when they went to pull up the data, they found something odd: “We noticed that there was a lot of content that was missing.” Edelson said she then contacted Facebook.

“They said, “Yeah, it’s a bug. Do you have any more examples?’ And I sent him some more examples. And that was the last contact I had with them,” she said.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have themselves been probing the role of Facebook and other social media sites in the Jan. 6 riot. Now they’ll have one less key tool in their bag.

Our top tabs

Democratic lawmakers say Amazon and Facebook should back down on their requests for FTC Chair Lina Khan to recuse herself. 

The four senators blasted the recusal attempts in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, arguing that they “only add to the perception that you are attempting to bully your regulators, disarm the FTC, and avoid accountability rather than to strengthen ethics standards.” Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)  and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), as well as Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), signed the letter. 

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) 

Both companies argue that Khan, a critic of Big Tech, won’t be able to handle cases involving the companies with an open mind. Amazon and Facebook declined to comment.

A Huawei executive’s extradition fight entered a crucial phase. 

A court hearing that kicked off in Vancouver could determine the fate of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, Eva Dou and Amanda Coletta report. Meng was detained in Canada in 2018 at the behest of U.S. authorities, who accused her of misleading banks into violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. 

In an attempt to have the case thrown out, Meng’s lawyers accused U.S. prosecutors of misleading Canadian officials.

Huawei says the case against Meng, a daughter of Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei, is political. “Meng Wanzhou has spent nearly 1,000 days as a pawn in a geopolitical game of chess,” said Alykhan Velshi, Huawei’s vice president of corporate affairs. 

Google has fired dozens of employees for abusing company tools and data, according to a leaked document. 

The tech giant fired 36 employees last year for security violations, with 10 percent of the allegations last year centering on data and system misuse, Motherboard’s Joseph Cox reports. Eighty-six percent of the allegations focused on abuse of confidential, internal company information. 

A Google spokesperson told Cox that most of the instances “relate to inappropriate access to, or misuse of, proprietary and sensitive corporate information” or intellectual property. The spokesperson added that the company has “consistently low” rates of employees mishandling user data. Other tech giants have also faced scrutiny over how their employees manage user data.

Rant and rave

Uber’s earnings, which beat estimates but reported growing adjusted losses, raised quite a few eyebrows. NBC News Digital’s Jason Abbruzzese and Microsoft’s Christina Warren:

The Los Angeles Times’s David Lazarus:

Inside the industry

LinkedIn must face narrowed US lawsuit claiming it overcharged advertisers

Privacy monitor

New York City’s vaccine passport plan renews online privacy debate (The New York Times)

Trending

Most racist abusers of footballers are still active on Twitter, PFA finds (The Guardian)

Before TikTok, witches traded their spells on this ancient Internet forum (Motherboard)

These far-right nationalists didn’t like what they read online about World War II – so they rewrote history (Haaretz)

Mentions

  • Instacart brought on former Facebook ad chief Carolyn Everson as its president. Her hire comes after Fidji Simo, who was in charge of Facebook’s app, joined the company as CEO.

Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee discusses legislation to boost the power of state attorneys general to choose where antitrust lawsuits are heard today at 9 a.m. 
  • Visa CEO Al Kelly discusses financial technology at a Washington Post Live event today at 2 p.m. 
  • The Wikimedia Foundation hosts an event on content moderation today at 8 p.m. 

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