The FTC’s Acting Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, Samuel Levine, has written an open letter blasting Facebook’s recent actions.
Facebook banned researchers from New York University that were studying political ad spending and disinformation on the social media platform. The company used its Terms of Service, which prohibit scraping personal data, to justify its actions. As critics have pointed out, however, the only data NYU researchers were collecting was regarding ads that are, by their very nature, public.
Director Levine has written an open letter to Facebook criticizing the company’s actions, and making it clear the company’s initial claim of ‘protecting privacy’ doesn’t hold water in these circumstances.
Below is a copy of his letter:
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:
I write concerning Facebook’s recent insinuation that its actions against an academic research project conducted by NYU’s Ad Observatory were required by the company’s consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. As the company has since acknowledged, this is inaccurate. The FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission.
While I appreciate that Facebook has now corrected the record, I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter. Only last week, Facebook’s General Counsel, Jennifer Newstead, committed the company to “timely, transparent communication to BCP staff about significant developments.” Yet the FTC received no notice that Facebook would be publicly invoking our consent decree to justify terminating academic research earlier this week.
Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest. Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising. While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope that the company is not invoking privacy – much less the FTC consent order – as a pretext to advance other aims.
/s/ Samuel Levine
Bureau of Consumer Protection