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Facebook needs 'safe harbor' for public interest journalism, say researchers

The Knight Institute has requested a response by early next month.

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Researchers want Facebook to change its rules, making it easier for journalists and academics to undertake investigations and studies on the social network.

The Knight First Amendment Institute, a nonprofit organization at Columbia University, on Monday sent a letter asking CEO Mark Zuckerberg to amend Facebook's terms of service and create a "safe harbor" for social media research and public interest journalism.

"We need to better understand how Facebook's human and algorithmic decisions are influencing public discourse and shaping our democracy," said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute, in an emailed release. "Facebook should lift the restrictions that obstruct digital journalists and researchers from studying the forces at work on its platform."

The letter called out two main methods used in social media reporting: scraping public information and creating temporary research accounts. Journalists and scholars who use these methods on Facebook currently may be suspended or shut down for using fake profiles.

In a statement, Facebook said it already offers journalists ways to use its platform for research.

"Journalists and researchers play a critical role in helping people better understand companies and their products – as well as holding us accountable when we get things wrong. We do have strict limits in place on how third parties can use people's information, and we recognize that these sometimes get in the way of this work," said Campbell Brown, head of global news partnerships at Facebook, in an email statement. "We offer tools for journalists that protect people's privacy, including CrowdTangle, which helps measure the performance of content on social media, and a new API we're launching to specifically analyze political advertising on Facebook."

Facebook has tightened security after several incidents involving user privacy. These included the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the social network's subsequent acknowledgment that it voluntarily shared data with third parties. Since then, the social network has revamped its privacy policies and taken steps to limit practices around advertising data. Facebook also said in May that it removed 583 million accounts from its platform in the first three months of 2018 as part of an effort to stop troll-backed influence campaigns from spreading on the site.

The Knight Institute says the exemptions it is seeking for journalists would further the public interest.

"The safe harbor we envision would permit journalists and researchers to conduct public-interest investigations while protecting the privacy of Facebook's users and the integrity of Facebook's platform," the letter read.

It also proposed some guidelines for news-gathering and research projects, including protection of Facebook users and a promise to avoid interfering with Facebook's proper operations.

The Knight Institute has requested a response from Facebook by Sept. 7.