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Facebook Move Against NYU Research Stirs Scraping Policy Feud

Aug. 4, 2021, 8:33 PM

Facebook Inc.‘s decision this week to disable the accounts of New York University researchers studying political ads further fuels a policy debate around the practice of data scraping and increases the potential for a legal dispute.

Restricting the researchers’ access raises broader questions about whether gathering information online in a way that’s seen as contradicting a website’s terms of service counts as a violation of federal anti-hacking law or other laws.

Facebook and other companies including LinkedIn Corp. and workforce analytics startup hiQ Labs Inc. have brought this issue before federal courts, where it remains up for debate whether the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, known as the CFAA, can be used against data scraping.

The NYU researchers could sue Facebook in a bid to regain their access to the social network, much like the way hiQ sued LinkedIn after being blocked from the job search site for collecting user information.

“We are currently evaluating our legal options,” Laura Edelson, an NYU researcher who studies online political communication, said in an email.

Facebook could also invoke the CFAA in court to thwart data scraping. The company has brought legal action in the past against other scrapers such as BrandTotal Ltd. and Unimania Inc., which collected data on social media users to sell what’s known as “marketing intelligence.”

Scraping Studies

Data scraping generally involves gathering information in an automated way on a mass scale. The same technology that allows for studying social profiles also underlies Google searches, airline ticket trackers, and other kinds of research.

Some academics and lawyers considered scraping-based research fair game after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in June to limit the scope of the computer crime law in Van Buren v. United States.

Facebook’s move to limit scraping adds to uncertainty around whether or how the CFAA applies to scraping, with implications for research beyond the NYU project.

“It’s potentially going to impact other academics and journalists” who use similar methods to gather data, said Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor at Princeton University who studies technology and law.

The research at issue was part of a project called the NYU Ad Observatory, which asks Facebook users to install a browser extension that collects data on what political ads they see.

FTC Connection

Facebook said Tuesday the NYU research violated its terms of service, adding that the accounts were disabled in part to comply with a 2019 data privacy agreement with the Federal Trade Commission. The agency fined Facebook a record $5 billion and ordered the company to add privacy protections as part of a settlement for failing to oversee apps that shared user information with third parties.

Mayer questioned the connection to the FTC’s Facebook order, since the data in that case flowed from the social network to third parties. The NYU data is voluntarily passed on by users, he said.

“The FTC order doesn’t speak to that,” Mayer said.

A representative for the FTC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The connection to the FTC order could also depend on what kind of data was collected through the political ad study, according to Megan Iorio, counsel at the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center.

If it included information on Facebook users’ friends, then Facebook could argue that their friends didn’t consent to data collection, she said. If the data was only related to advertisers’ accounts on Facebook, then the connection to the FTC order is “tenuous,” Iorio said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kibkabe Araya at karaya@bloombergindustry.com;

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