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Facebook accused of using ‘privacy concerns’ to avoid data transparency

Back again with yet another story concerning data privacy and Facebook. But, there’s a twist this time around – Facebook is on the offensive.

General public opinion of Facebook has all but fallen off a cliff in recent years.

Following the blunder of Cambridge Analytica, we’ve heard endless stories of political manipulation on the app, nefarious sales through Facebook Marketplace, and a lax approach to user privacy and misinformation which still persists today.

During a study back in May, these factors culminated in Facebook gaining the unwanted title of being the least trustworthy and secure of all the big social media players. Congratulations!

The latest slew of accusations against the platform come by way of the US government, which claims Facebook is using ‘privacy as a pretext’ to block researchers from accessing its data and checking for misinformation.

All in the name of privacy, apparently. You couldn’t write it.

Facebook’s crackdown on third-party academics

If you keep up with social tech, you’ll recall Facebook coming under fire for its confusing and inconsistent approach to political advertising – certainly in the build up to the US presidential election.

Despite assertions from CEO Mark Zuckerberg to congress that Facebook does not ‘allow misinformation in ads,’ baseless claims from Donald Trump sought to convince voters their ballots hadn’t been counted. It later reluctantly pulled 50 such ads.

For this reason, third party auditors have kept a close eye on Facebook’s product adverts.

Using a browser plug-in called Ad Observer which – as its name suggests – allows for searches across the social network’s ads, researchers at the New York University uncovered ‘systematic flaws’ in Facebook’s ad library and its misinformation policies over several years.

Facebook does not make such information available itself, and as previous instances have shown, the company often fails to label political ads at all.

Now, in a move being described as ‘deeply concerning’ by Senator Mark R Warner, Facebook has banned third party researchers from using Ad Observer completely – on the basis it may jeopardise user’s privacy.

On the surface, it’s not an entirely unreasonable argument given that Cambridge Analytica sprung from third party inspections of the site for user data. However, software giant Mozilla is adamant that no such threat actually exists, having examined the code of the Ad Observer plug in.

The response of politicians and researchers

The Federal Trade Commission has been wrangling with Facebook over antitrust issues since Cambridge Analytica, and rumblings are now gathering momentum that this latest move may be an attempt to keep outside eyes from prying into its practices.

‘For several years now, I have called on social media platforms like Facebook to work with, and better empower independent researchers – whose efforts consistently improve the integrity and safety of social media platforms by exposing harmful and exploitative activity,’ Warner said.

‘Instead, Facebook has seemingly done the opposite.’

Worryingly, the chief of the New York University project, Laura Edelson, revealed that outside researchers and journalists have inadvertently been ousted by Facebook’s ban.

Facebook has dismissed this notion, with spokesperson Mike Clark claiming it already offers ‘privacy protective methods to collect and analyse data’ for transparency reports.

While Facebook is seemingly sticking to its guns here – as it did with no admission of guilt back in 2019 – it’s looking increasingly likely that congress will intervene as unease continues to grow among journalists and researchers.

Back in 2018, the Knight Institute – an official body which defends freedom of speech in the digital space – urged Facebook to create a ‘safe harbour’ within its terms of service that would allow journalists to research and collect data whilst maintaining user privacy.

Unsurprisingly, the negotiations were said to end in an unceremonious stalemate.

Until more details arise from the whole story, we can’t definitively say whether or not Facebook is using loopholes to hoard data and shady practices behind closed doors.

If further developments heighten such suspicions, people are really going to start digging into the reasons why. Hazarding a guess (and going on recent history), I reckon that would probably turn out bad for Facebook.