Facebook Disables Ad Observatory; Academicians and Journalists Fire Back

Since September 15 of 2020, the Ad Observatory has been an effective resource for journalists and academicians seeking information about the placement and targeting of ads on social media. In doing so, the project increased transparency about what messages are being used, who is funding each ad, and how much is being spent to disseminate them.

On August 6, Facebook shutdown the NYU Ad Observatory by shutting down the Facebook accounts of Cybersecurity for Democracy team members Damon McCoy and Laura Edelson. Though the official reason given was that Facebook was complying with Federal Trade Commission rules because researchers did not have permission from users to scrape the information, the FTC denied the claim. According to an article in The Washington Post, “the Federal Trade Commission rejected Facebook’s assertion in a letter sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, and penned by Acting Director for the Bureau of Consumer Protection Samuel Levine.”

As stated in Medium.com on August 4, 2021, Facebook initially sent a “cease and desist” letter two weeks before the election in November 2020 asking McCoy and Edelson to take down the Observatory. There was an immediate backlash as on October 28, 2020, New York University, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and numerous academic researchers issued a press statement condemning the action. The document was signed by more than 50 academic and journalistic institutions, and prominent organizations in computer science, human rights, and political science, as well as numerous individual journalists and researcher.

The shutdown has spurred another massive swell of support for the researchers, as well as widespread coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, CNBC, BBC, Wired, and many others. Laura Edelson even did a podcast on Spotify on the topic.

To follow this story as it develops, go to the Cybersecurity for Democracy web page at https://cybersecurityfordemocracy.org/. The most recent press statement from NYU and the Knight Institute can be found here.