The clash between Facebook and independent researchers

Laura Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, joins Ryan Knutson and Jeff Horwitz in an interview about the relationship between Facebook and independent researchers. 

In 2018, Facebook launched its Ad Library, an effort to improve transparency which details who's paying for advertising and who those advertisers are trying to reach. Edelson and advising Professor Damon McCoy created the plug-in Ad Observer as a way to understand specifically how political ads are being targeted to users by allowing them to share with the researchers the political ads they are receiving on Facebook and YouTube — without compromising user privacy.

“When users who've installed our browser extension are shown ads on Facebook, those ads, as well as the ad targetings are sent back to our servers. What we then do is, we can look at that ad and just see, how was it shown to the user? Was it disclosed to the user as a political ad? So we can see, are political ads being disclosed consistently and effectively?” Edelson explains.

Knutson brings up the fact that when Facebook “suspended [Laura’s] personal account, and the accounts of some of her colleagues, Facebook actually didn't stop the browser extension. The browser extension is still able to collect data. But without their Facebook accounts, Laura and her team aren't able to access the tools they need to analyze the data.” 

Edelson mentions how, after Facebook took this step, other researchers planning to set up similar projects reached out to her acknowledging that the company's actions have implications for their own research.

“I have an email in my inbox that I got from another researcher who I know had been planning to set up a similar project, who I had been talking to about just some of the technical details of how to do this. Who told me that his university's legal risk department, maybe it wasn't going to allow the project to continue. And I completely understand that. It's very difficult for an individual institution to stand against a company with the size of ... might of Facebook.” Edelson remarks.