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Facebook disables accounts tied to NYU's research into political ads

The social network said researchers used "unauthorized means" to collect data from Facebook users.

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Facebook has been clashing with NYU researchers about a project that examines its political ads.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Facebook said Tuesday that it disabled accounts tied to a project from New York University that analyzed political ads on the social network. The company said researchers collected data from Facebook users without their consent.

Researchers launched the project, known as the NYU Ad Observatory, ahead of the 2020 US presidential election to make it easier for journalists, policy makers and the public to spot trends about Facebook political ad targeting. As part of the project, NYU created a plug-in Facebook users could add to their web browser that copied the ads they saw on the social network and stored that data in a public database. The browser extension also collected usernames, links to user profiles and information about why users see a particular ad, information that isn't publicly available. 

But Facebook said researchers violated the social network's rules by scraping data from users through "unauthorized means." The company said the browser extension collected information "about Facebook users who did not install it or consent to the collection."

The clash between NYU and Facebook underscores how the social network is trying to balance both privacy and transparency concerns. Facebook's political ad targeting has been under more scrutiny after Russian trolls used political ads to sow discord among Americans during the 2016 US presidential election. The social network created its own public database to search for political ads, but NYU said the tool it built had more functionality. At the same time, Facebook has also been under fire for not doing enough to protect user privacy after a data scandal in 2018. The scandal involved a UK political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica, which harvested data from up to 87 million Facebook users without their consent.

Read more: Facebook, NYU researchers tussle over political ads on the social network

Facebook said it also cut off apps, Pages and platform access tied to NYU's research project because data scraping jeopardizes the privacy of its users.

"While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be ignored and should be remediated," Facebook Product Management Director Mike Clark said in a blog post

NYU called Facebook's actions "regrettable." "Our researchers are undertaking important, legitimate research, and the impediments that Facebook has put in their way are disappointing and, from our perspective, unjustified," NYU said in a statement.

Laura Edelson, an NYU researcher involved in the project, tweeted that her personal Facebook account was suspended and that the social network's actions also hinder the team's research into vaccine misinformation.

"The work our team does to make data about disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy," Edelson tweeted on Tuesday night.

Facebook's actions have also prompted calls for more regulation to make online advertising more transparent. "It's clear that Congress must now act to bring more clarity to the world of online advertising," Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, tweeted on Wednesday.