By Jeff Horwitz
Facebook Inc. is demanding that a New York University research project cease collecting data about its political-ad targeting practices, setting up a fight with academics seeking to study the platform without the company's permission.
The dispute involves the NYU Ad Observatory, a project launched last month by the university's engineering school that has recruited more than 6,500 volunteers to use a specially designed browser extension to collect data about the political ads Facebook shows them.
In a letter sent Oct. 16 to the researchers behind the NYU Ad Observatory, Facebook said the project violates provisions in its terms of service that prohibit bulk data collection from its site.
The clash between the social-media giant and a major research university comes at a time of heightened scrutiny over political advertising on social media ahead of next month's U.S. election. Facebook in recent weeks has said it would bar new political ads ahead of Election Day and suspend all political ads indefinitely that evening to prevent the spread of paid misinformation about the election outcome.
Following a furor about the opaque nature of political advertising in the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook launched an archive of advertisements that run on its platform, with information such as who paid for an ad, when it ran and the geographic location of people who saw it. But that library excludes information about the targeting that determines who sees the ads.
The researchers behind the NYU Ad Observatory said they wanted to provide journalists, researchers, policy makers, and others with the ability to search political ads by state and contest to see what messages are targeted to specific audiences and how those ads are funded.
Facebook's demand that the project stop its collection drew opposition from proponents of greater ad transparency, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), a sponsor of a bill called the Honest Ads Act that would mandate greater transparency in online political advertising.
"It's unacceptable that in the middle of an election, Facebook is making it harder for Americans to get information about online political ads," Ms. Klobuchar said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. Social media platforms have pledged to make online advertising more transparent, she said, but Facebook's threatened action against NYU "is further evidence that voluntary standards are insufficient."
Facebook said it already offers more transparency into political advertising than either traditional media or rival social platforms, and that the automated collection of data from users' on-platform activity -- even with their permission -- poses an unacceptable privacy threat.
"We informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people's Facebook information would violate our terms," Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said in a statement to the Journal, adding that if the project doesn't shut down voluntarily, Facebook could make technical changes to its own code that would block the NYU researchers from collecting data.
For Facebook, allowing outsiders to access data on its platform has been tricky territory. Following the uproar over Cambridge Analytica, a company that obtained unauthorized access to Facebook user data for political profiling in 2016, the Federal Trade Commission pushed Facebook to rein in third-party data access. Facebook imposed a series of restrictions on outsiders' ability to obtain, analyze and use data gathered from its platforms. The company has sent legal demands and sometimes filed suits against entities it accuses of seeking data access for nefarious purposes.
What limitations on social media data scraping are enforceable has been the subject of litigation in recent years, with platforms arguing they have both a right and responsibility to prevent the unauthorized use of user-generated data.
The NYU project has already collected the targeting data behind more than 200,000 ads. Researchers say it has exposed areas where the publicly available archive of political ads Facebook created after the 2016 election is failing to log advertisements that should be in the system.
Facebook said it has appreciated the NYU researchers' efforts to improve the ad library, but won't stand for violations of its rules.
Laura Edelson, a researcher at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering who helps oversee the Ad Observatory project, said, "The only thing that would prompt us to stop doing this would be if Facebook would do it themselves, which we have called on them to do."
Facebook's letter to NYU defended its efforts to make information available to outside researchers, noting that the company has set up an official academic partnership to study the site's impact on voters during the 2020 U.S. election.
Rebekah Tromble, the director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University, said Facebook deserves credit for its own research initiatives, but added that she disagrees with its action against the NYU project.
"There's far too much critical information closed up behind Facebook's walled garden," said Ms. Tromble, associate director of Georgetown's Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics. "And efforts like the Ad Observatory play a critical role in breaking down those walls."
Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com
Corrections & Amplifications
This article was corrected at 8:22 p.m. ET to reflect that Rebekah Tromble is the director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University. The original version incorrectly said her title is associate director and misidentified the school as Georgetown University.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 23, 2020 17:58 ET (21:58 GMT)Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.