NEW YORK — Two days after Facebook abruptly shut down the accounts of New York University researchers Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, blocking their research into political ads and the spread of misinformation on the platform, the Federal Trade Commission sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg clarifying that its consent decree does not require the company to shut down the research. Moreover, it noted its support of research efforts to shed light on “opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising.”

Two weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Facebook sent Edelson and McCoy a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that they discontinue use of the research tool they developed, called Ad Observer, and that they take down the results of their prior research. Facebook’s threat to shut down their public interest research prompted public outcry in support of the project by researchers, journalism organizations, and civil society groups. 

Although Facebook made its demand to Edelson and McCoy in October of last year, it did not move to shut down the researchers’ Facebook accounts until earlier this week, hours after Edelson had informed the platform that she and McCoy were studying the spread of disinformation on the social media platform on January 6th. Facebook also shut down the account of a lead engineer on the project.

Today’s letter from the Acting Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection Samuel Levine not only rebukes Facebook for publicly invoking the consent decree to justify taking action against the academic research but also expresses concern about Facebook’s lack of transparency and its failure to provide the FTC with advance notice of its intentions. The FTC’s letter is available here

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and First Amendment specialists at Ballard Spahr are representing Edelson and McCoy in their personal capacities in this matter. 

The following can be attributed to Laura Edelson, Ph.D. candidate in computer science at New York University Tandon School of Engineering and the lead researcher behind NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy, which operates Ad Observer, and Ad Observatory, a site for the public to explore trends in Facebook advertising:

We're very gratified for the FTC's clarification that Facebook is not required to shut down our work under their consent decree. It's time for Facebook to reinstate our accounts and allow our research to continue. We hope to put this incident behind us and return to our work fighting disinformation online.

The following can be attributed to Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering:

In light of the FTC’s clarification that Facebook is not required to take enforcement action, we call on Facebook to stop obstructing and instead assist our research and that of other researchers studying the platform in the public interest.

The following can be attributed to Alex Abdo, litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University:

Facebook has relied from the outset on a misguided argument that the consent decree requires it to shut down even good-faith and privacy-preserving research. Now that the FTC has rejected this claim, Facebook should formally establish an exception to its terms of service for research that protects privacy and serves the public interest.

The following can be attributed to Seth Berlin, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Ballard Spahr, which is serving as co-counsel to Damon McCoy and Laura Edelson:

As the FTC’s letter confirms, Facebook has been using a supposed concern over user privacy as a pretext for shielding its political ad targeting practices from public scrutiny. It is time for Facebook to restore the researchers’ accounts and to allow this important research to proceed unimpeded. If Facebook doesn’t like what the research reveals, it should change its practices rather than trying to silence the researchers.  

Edelson and McCoy’s research relies on Ad Observer, a browser plugin they and others created that allows consenting Facebook users to voluntarily share with the researchers limited and anonymous information about the political ads shown to them by the platform. The tool enables researchers and journalists to follow trends in Facebook political advertising in their states via a public-facing site, Reporters from Wisconsin to Utah to Florida and more have used this resource to write stories about the election and its aftermath. (See reporting about the project and using Ad Observatory data here.

McCoy and Edelson run Cybersecurity for Democracy, a research-based, nonpartisan, and independent effort to expose online threats to our social fabric and to recommend how to counter them. It is part of the Center for Cybersecurity at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. 

In 2018, the Knight Institute sent a letter to Facebook requesting that it amend its terms of service to establish a “safe harbor” for public-interest research and journalism on the platform. This safe harbor would permit researchers like Edelson and McCoy to study Facebook’s platform using basic tools of digital investigation, including Ad Observer, whose use might otherwise violate Facebook’s terms of service.  A copy of the letter is available here. 

In 2019, in the midst of ongoing negotiations between the Knight Institute and Facebook more than 200 researchers signed an open letter in support of the “safe harbor” effort. A copy of the researchers’ letter is available here.

For more information, contact: Lorraine Kenny, communications director, [email protected]