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A senior Federal Trade Commission official on Friday criticised Facebook’s move to shut down the personal accounts of two academic researchers and terminate their probe into misinformation spread through political ads on the social network.

Facebook wrongly used a 2019 data-privacy settlement with the FTC to justify shutting down the New York University researchers’ accounts this week, Samuel Levine, acting director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, said in a letter Thursday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Here's the full text of the letter:

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:

I write concerning Facebook’s recent insinuation that its actions against an academic research project conducted by NYU’s Ad Observatory were required by the company’s consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. As the company has since acknowledged, this is inaccurate. The FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission.

While I appreciate that Facebook has now corrected the record, I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter. Only last week, Facebook’s General Counsel, Jennifer Newstead, committed the company to “timely, transparent communication to BCP staff about significant developments." Yet the FTC received no notice that Facebook would be publicly invoking our consent decree to justify terminating academic research earlier this week.

Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest. Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising. While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope that the company is not invoking privacy – much less the FTC consent order – as a pretext to advance other aims.

Sincerely,

/s/ Samuel Levine

Acting Director Bureau of Consumer Protection

Facebook maintained that the researchers violated its terms of service and were involved in unauthorized data collection from its massive network. The academics, however, say the company is attempting to exert control on research that paints it in a negative light.

The NYU researchers with the Ad Observatory Project had for several years been looking into Facebook’s Ad Library, where searches can be done on advertisements running across Facebook’s products.

The access was used to “uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, to identify misinformation in political ads, including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation," Laura Edelson, the lead researcher behind NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy, said Wednesday.

In a blog post late Tuesday, Facebook said it takes “unauthorized data scraping seriously, and when we find instances of scraping we investigate and take action to protect our platform."

Facebook representatives didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on Levine’s letter.

The FTC opened an investigation into Facebook in 2018 after revelations that data mining firm Cambridge Analytica had gathered details on as many as 87 million Facebook users without their permission.

In addition to privacy concerns, the FTC and Facebook have been wrangling over antitrust issues. The agency and 48 states and districts sued Facebook in December, accusing the tech giant of abusing its market power in social networking to crush smaller competitors. They were seeking remedies that could include a forced spinoff of the social network’s Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services.

A federal judge recently dismissed the antitrust lawsuits, saying they didn't provide enough evidence to prove that Facebook is a monopoly. The ruling dismissed the FTC's complaint but not the case, giving the agency a chance to file a revised complaint.

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