Senators Probe Facebook’s Decision to Remove NYU Researchers from Platform

On Monday, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) along with Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Mark Warner (D-VA), all chairs of various tech and consumer interest-related committees, sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seeking answers from the company about its decision to terminate Ad Observatory Project researchers’ access to its platform.  According to Sen. Klobuchar’s press release, the New York University project studies political advertising on Facebook. 

According to the senators’ letter, the project self-describes as “‘nonpartisan and independent … focused on improving the transparency of online political advertising.’” Research from the project has helped inform consumers and lawmakers about several more slippery aspects of the social network, the letter said, including the extent to which Facebook’s ad platform has been a conduit for consumer scams and frauds, has enabled hiring discrimination, and has maneuvered around accessibility laws. Thus far, the press release said, the Ad Observatory Project has made several important discoveries, like underscoring the lack of transparency in how advertisers target political ads.

The letter expressed the senators’ surprise that Facebook terminated the agreement, then argued that the “opaque and unregulated online advertising platforms that social media companies maintain have allowed a hotbed of disinformation and consumer scams to proliferate, and we need to find solutions to those problems.” 

As such, the senators posed several questions to Facebook about its decision, including how the research purportedly compromises people’s online privacy and whether and why it violates the social media platform’s terms of use. In addition, the letter queried the company about various limitations associated with data it makes available to academics through its Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORT) initiative.

The senators asked for written responses to their questions by August 20.