A few hours ago, Facebook announced that it is blocking platform access for the New York University (NYU) Ad Observatory, which was studying the impact of political ads on social media. The company claimed that the reason for the ban is that the researchers built a browser extension that breached user privacy and collected personal data without their consent. Despite Facebook offering data in a privacy-protective manner and warning the NYU Ad Observatory multiple times, the researchers continued using their extension for unauthorized data scraping. Now, Mozilla has voiced support for the research group and called out Facebook for its counterproductive approach to the issue at hand.
In a statement to Neowin, Mozilla highlighted that it is a proponent of using data available on social media platforms to determine the spread of misinformation. As such, it has thoroughly tested the "Ad Observer" browser extension multiple times to ensure that it meets data privacy and collection standards, and reached the conclusion that Facebook's claims "do not hold up".
In a more detailed blog post, Mozilla's Chief Security Officer Marshall Erwin noted that the code for Ad Observer is open source. Following reviews of the code, Mozilla provided feedback to NYU Ad Observatory which made changes accordingly to comply with privacy standards. As such, even Mozilla promoted the extension to users of its Firefox browser. The company emphasized that the extension only collects ads, targeting parameters, and metadata linked to these ads. Users can also navigate to the "My Archive" tab to see what data has been collected by Ad Observer.
Erwin went on to say that:
Of course, companies like Facebook need to be proactive about third-parties that might be collecting data on their platform and putting their users at risk. Figuring out what third-parties to allow under what circumstances is certainly not an easy task. But in this case, the application of its policy is counterproductive. This is why Mozilla makes exceptions for good-faith security research in our own products and why we have been supportive of calls for Facebook to create safe harbors for public-interest research.
This isn't the first time Mozilla has advocated for the NYU Ad Observatory. Back in October 2020, it penned an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, demanding that the company withdraw the cease-and-desist letter sent to the research group. It remains to be seen if Facebook will change its stance on the matter now, but the chances of that happening are quite low.