In October 2020, Facebook sent a cease and desist letter to two New York University researchers collecting data on the ads Facebook hosts on its platform, arguing that the researchers were breaching the company’s terms of service. The researchers disagreed and kept up with their work. On August 3, after months of failed negotiations, Facebook shut off access to their accounts—an aggressive move that journalists and scholars denounced as an effort by the company to shield itself from transparency.
For this week’s episode of our Arbiters of Truth series on our online information ecosystem, Evelyn Douek and Quinta Jurecic spoke with Alex Abdo, the litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University (where, full disclosure, Evelyn will soon join as a senior research fellow). The Knight Institute is providing legal representation to the two NYU researchers, Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy—and Alex walked us through what exactly is happening here. Why did Facebook ban Edelson and McCoy’s accounts, and what does their research tool, Ad Observer, do? What’s the state of the law, and is there any merit to Facebook’s claims that its hands are tied? And what does this mean for the future of research and journalism on Facebook?