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Jan. 31, 2019, 9:48 a.m.

Facebook roadblocks ProPublica’s ad transparency tool (gee, what a good time for a safe harbor)

“The fact that Facebook wants to be the ones who determine what kind of journalism gets done about Facebook is just not happening.”

In a year and a half, ProPublica collected 100,000 Facebook ads — and to whom they were targeted — through a browser extension installed by 16,000 volunteers. Its reporters used the tool to report on the targeting strategies of politicians and political groups, misleading tactics, and the fact that Facebook’s ad archive kept missing the very ads it was supposed to openly store — applying similar analysis as, say, its reporting that Facebook allowed discriminatorily targeted housing ads.

Now, Facebook has shut part of that extension down, limiting it to just collect the ad content, not the “Why am I seeing this?” information that we all definitely click on. (Mozilla and Who Targets Me developed similar tools that were also affected.)

Here’s ProPublica’s layout of the situation:

Facebook has made minor tweaks before that broke our tool. But this time, Facebook blocked the ability to automatically pull ad targeting information.

The latest move comes a few months after Facebook executives urged ProPublica to shut down its ad transparency project. In August, Facebook ads product management director Rob Leathern acknowledged ProPublica’s project “serves an important purpose.” But he said, “We’re going to start enforcing on the existing terms of service that we have.” He said Facebook would soon “transition” ProPublica away from its tool.

Facebook has launched an archive of American political ads, which the company says is an alternative to ProPublica’s tool. However, Facebook’s ad archive is only available in three countries, fails to disclose important targeting data and doesn’t even include all political ads run in the U.S.

“It’s still important and useful to collect the ad content, but in order to understand that ad content more fully you need to know who it was targeted to,” said Jeremy Merrill, a recent news apps developer at ProPublica (now at Quartz) who helped build the tool. This fall, he used its findings to report on how a petroleum lobbying group and a deceptive group using Bernie Sanders pictures to push Green Party candidates skirted Facebook’s ad transparency rules.

“Our whole project is creating a database that already exists in Menlo Park. If Facebook really thought ad transparency was important and that our tool was useful … then they could publish the whole database next week,” he said.

Facebook, for its part, told ProPublica this was part of a routine update “applied to ad blocking and ad scraping plugins, which can expose people’s information to bad actors in ways they did not expect.” A Facebook spokesperson told me they’re trying to tighten loopholes in its API and won’t make an exception, but said the company is considering ways to allow for privacy-conscious research on the platform. Here’s Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product:

And Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer now at Stanford:

ProPublica, surprise, sees it differently: “It’s clear that Facebook is seeking to disable tools that provide greater transparency on political advertising than they wish to permit,” Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president, told Mashable. “They claim this is because of potential abuse of or problems with such tools, but they have cited no evidence any such problems have resulted with our Political Ad Collector — and we know of none.”

Didn’t Facebook just commit $300 million to journalism — okay, “news partnerships and programming” — over the next three years? Yes, but they’ve framed it as $300 million to wean news organizations off the platform. Is anyone surprised at the company’s response in this situation? Not really, but it’s still a weird look.

One solution to this problem would be to establish a safe harbor to whitelist ProPublica’s tool and others related to “news-gathering and research projects.” In fact, that’s exactly what the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University suggested back in August, which was right around the same time Leathern and Facebook executives warned ProPublica that they would start enforcing their terms of service. The safe harbor proposal authors wrote:

We are unaware of any case in which Facebook has brought legal action against a journalist or researcher for a violation of its terms of service. In multiple instances, however, Facebook has instructed journalists or researchers to discontinue important investigative projects, claiming that the projects violate Facebook’s terms of service. As you undoubtedly appreciate, the mere possibility of legal action has a significant chilling effect. We have spoken to a number of journalists and researchers who have modified their investigations to avoid violating Facebook’s terms of service, even though doing so made their work less valuable to the public. In some cases, the fear of liability led them to abandon projects altogether.

Granting some projects safe harbor and not others could be dicey, and Facebook hasn’t exactly been excited to have humans make that sort of editorial judgment call. Jameel Jaffer, the Knight First Amendment Institute director, told me back in August “we think Facebook exercising this judgment is preferable by far to the current state of affairs, under which Facebook categorically prohibits the use of digital investigative tools that are crucial to the study of the platform.”

Negotiations are apparently still ongoing. Here’s Alex Abdo, senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute:

ProPublica is looking for the answers to those questions. Merrill said the team is still working on preparing a way around this roadblock. “We live in a democracy. People have the right to know what politicians are saying in public,” he said. “The fact that Facebook wants to be the ones who determine what kind of journalism gets done about Facebook is just not happening.”

POSTED     Jan. 31, 2019, 9:48 a.m.
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