Restrictions impede public understanding of Facebook’s platform and its impact on democracy
Journalists and researchers play a crucial role in illuminating the influence that Facebook’s platform has on public discourse. Facebook’s terms of service, however, severely limit their ability to do that work, by prohibiting them from using basic tools of digital investigation on Facebook’s platform. To create space for this urgently needed journalism and research, the Knight Institute has proposed that Facebook amend its terms of service to establish a “safe harbor” for certain kinds of journalism and research while appropriately protecting the privacy of Facebook’s users and the integrity of Facebook’s platform.
On August 6, 2018, the Knight Institute wrote to Facebook, explaining its safe-harbor proposal and providing a blueprint for amending the company’s terms of service. The Knight Institute sent the letter on behalf of five journalists and researchers seeking to pursue investigations on Facebook’s platform that were in the public interest but were barred by Facebook’s terms of service. On June 12, 2019, the Knight Institute published an open letter from more than 200 digital researchers urging Facebook to adopt the Institute’s safe-harbor proposal.
Although representatives from Facebook contacted the Knight Institute to discuss the proposal, Facebook ultimately rejected it.
On October 16, 2020, Facebook sent a cease and desist letter to two New York University researchers, Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, demanding that the researchers discontinue use of a tool crucial to studying political ads on Facebook’s platform. On August 3, 2021, Facebook abruptly shut down their accounts, hours after Edelson had informed the platform that she and McCoy were studying the spread of disinformation about January 6 on the social media platform. The Knight Institute and First Amendment specialists at Ballard Spahr are representing Edelson and McCoy in their personal capacities in this matter.