Facebook has slammed a New York University investigation into ads on the platform. It blocks the accounts of the researchers involved, as it has done before with similar initiatives.
Facebook is one of the largest online advertising platforms in the world. Still, its highly targeted advertising and Facebook’s lack of control over what is advertised leaves the door open to things like financial scams, as well as political or vaccine misinformation.
This is being investigated by the NYU Ad Observatory project, which collects which advertisements people see on Facebook via an add-on in the browser. But that is not to the liking of the social network. At the end of last year, the researchers already received a formal request to stop their activities. So now, the researchers’ accounts are suspended, preventing them from continuing their investigation at all.
It’s not the first time Facebook has done this. A similar European initiative was already blocked in 2019, in which the VRT and De Tijd were involved at the time. Both then and now, the company points to the extension, which it says also collects data from users who do not participate or explicitly consent to it.
That in itself is a very ironic defence because Facebook now has an endless list of privacy problems where it has been too lax on itself or third parties or even collects data from people who are not even members of Facebook. For example, via tracking pixels on websites with a like button. Facebook’s attitude to tolerate that for a long time, but not a university research project, is ambiguous.
Since 2019, Facebook has had its own library in which advertisements are stored and are searchable. But the researchers themselves have already noted that not all ads are stored there. In the past, she discovered systematic errors in the library, but also misinformation in political advertisements.
Lead researcher Laura Edelson said on Twitter that her project, which involved some 25 researchers and journalists, has been de facto shut down because their own Facebook accounts have been shut down, as well as access to Facebook’s own ad library.
The discontinuation of the project does receive support from a political angle. US Senator Mark Warner, among others, says he is concerned about Facebook’s practice precisely because the researchers are an independent party to map Facebook’s shortcomings.