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FTC rejects Facebook’s justification for cutting off researchers as ‘inaccurate’

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) headquarters stands in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
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The Federal Trade Commission has dismissed as “inaccurate” Facebook’s claim that it cut off a group of researchers’ access to data to comply with a privacy agreement with the agency, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

On Tuesday, the social media giant disabled the accounts of researchers at the New York University Ad Observatory, which tracks digital advertisements on the platform, saying in a blog post it did so to comply with a privacy order it struck with the FTC.

Facebook said the tool violated its privacy standards by scraping data from the site without authorization. The decision and Facebook’s justification drew backlash from lawmakers who accused the company of erroneously citing privacy concerns to escape scrutiny from independent researchers.

The agency rejected Facebook’s assertion in a letter sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, penned by Acting Director for the Bureau of Consumer Protection Samuel Levine.

“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,” he wrote.

According to Wired, Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne later said that Facebook’s agreement with the agency did not force it to suspend the accounts, but rather its own privacy guidelines.

Levine cited Facebook’s reversal in the letter, calling the initial claim “inaccurate.”

“While I appreciate that Facebook has now corrected the record, I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter,” he wrote.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter or on whether it will reinstate the researchers’ accounts.

Facebook’s decision to cut off the researchers drew condemnations from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, free speech advocates and other Facebook watchdogs.