You may recall that almost two months ago, Facebook banned the New York University (NYU) Ad Observatory from its platform, stating that the team behind it was using unauthorized methods to collect user data. In this case, the Ad Observatory was studying and measuring the impact of political ads on Facebook. The project's team will be testifying against Facebook in Congress today, asking for better laws and protections for those studying social media platforms.
The NYU Ad Observatory will be represented by the co-director of NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project, Laura Edelson, who will provide a testimonial to the United States House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The hearing will be handled by the Investigations and Oversight subcommittee, and is titled "The Disinformation Black Box: Researching Social Media". It will explain how proliferation of misinformation and disinformation on social media can result in public health crisis. Edelson will also emphasize that Facebook and other social media platforms only make a limited amount of data available to researchers, which makes it difficult to perform thorough research.
Ahead of the hearing, Edelson also stated that:
Every day that my team cannot access the Facebook data we need to do our research, we fall further behind in the race to find answers. Online misinformation has created an enormous public health crisis, and we need rigorous science based on data on how to deal with it — just like we did with Big Tobacco, industrial pollution, and drunk driving.
Facebook’s behavior is anti-science and anti-progress. It’s clear Facebook can’t be trusted to provide the transparency we need to move forward — and so we need lawmakers to compel them to disclose the data.
The aim of the hearing is to emphasize the importance of increasing the transparency of online platforms. Although it isn't targeted only at Facebook, the company will find itself in the crosshair after its action against the NYU Ad Observatory.
To that end, Edelson will be putting forward three policies, co-developed with Mozilla and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. These include the provisioning of universal advertising transparency, developing a "safe harbor" protecting researchers and journalists to establish the legality of ethical research, and requiring platforms to "make public data public".
The NYU Ad Observatory is supported by Mozilla in this initiative. The company also advocated for the project after its initial tussle with Facebook a couple of months back. In a statement to Neowin, Mozilla's Chief Security Officer Marshall Erwin had the following to say about the matter:
Transparency is the first, unescapable step toward holding social media platforms accountable for harmful outcomes. Without insights into what people experience, what ads are presented to them and why, what content is recommended to them and why, we cannot begin to understand how misinformation spreads.
Mozilla built Rally, the data donation platform, because we believe that users should determine who benefits from their data — and because understanding what is happening on the internet is the first step towards fixing it. Businesses built on people's data should not profit off your data and then, when you decide to give it away, say that 'it's against the rules.' Platforms should not be scared of showing us what that data is used for.
The hearing will take place online on September 28, 10 a.m. ET, and you can check it out here.