A group of supporters of the first amendment urged Facebook General manager Mark Zuckerberg to change the rules of the giant social media platform to enable public service journalism and research on its platform.
The problem is particularly pressing, says the Knight First Amendment Institute of Columbia University, while journalists and researchers are investigating Russia’s interference in mid-term elections via platforms such as those of Facebook.
In a letter sent Monday to Zuckerberg, the institute noted that Facebook’s terms of service precluded the automated collection of public information, a practice that researchers call “scraping” and creating temporary search accounts.
The automated collection allows journalists and researchers to generate statistical information on models and information feeds on the Facebook platform, said Ramya Krishnan, a lawyer at the Knight Institute. Sometimes journalists and researchers have tried to create temporary search accounts, using a variety of names and biographical attributes, to enable them to evaluate how the platform responds to different profiles, she said.
But Facebook’s terms of service prohibit such practices, which require the user to “provide accurate information about yourself” and create only one account.
Being able to conduct such research is important because “Facebook’s algorithms are opaque and they have a huge influence on our public discourse,” said Krishnan. “The only way to test their operation is to use tools such as temporary search accounts to test algorithms on their platform.”
Journalists who use such techniques can have their accounts suspended and could even risk federal prosecutions, said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute. Both Facebook and the Department of Justice have sometimes interpreted the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to prohibit any breach of the terms of service of a website.
“We are not aware of any cases in which Facebook has filed a lawsuit against a journalist or researcher” for violating its terms of service, the letter said. However, in several cases, the company asked journalists or researchers to stop the investigation projects, claiming that they violated the rules of the Facebook user.
“The mere possibility of a lawsuit has a significant deterrent effect,” said the letter was written on behalf of a group of journalists and researchers who worked for the New York Times, PBS NewsHour, Gizmodo Media Group and Princeton University. the School of Information at the University of Michigan.
The Knight Institute has proposed a “safe haven” to allow journalists and researchers to conduct public interest investigations that are currently prohibited by the rules of the company.
The revised rules proposed by the institute would indicate that it is not a violation of the company’s terms of service to collect public information “by automated means” or “by creating or using temporary search accounts “as a number of conditions are met. For example, the project must be in the public interest, steps must be taken to prevent the theft of data, the data must not be sold or transferred to an advertising network or a data broker and no data identifying a Facebook user should not be divulged without the consent of that user.
A spokesman for Facebook said the company was reviewing the recommendation. At the same time, Campbell Brown, head of global partnerships for Facebook’s news, said in a statement:
“We appreciate the recommendations of the Knight Institute, and journalists and researchers play a vital role in helping people better understand companies and their products, and empowering ourselves when we make mistakes.” We offer tools for journalists who protect the privacy of people, including CrowdTangle, which helps measure the performance of the content on social media, and a new API. [software program] we are launching to specifically analyze political advertising on Facebook. ”
Cameron Hickey, a researcher who has worked for Miles O. Brien, PBS NewsHour’s science correspondent, said that after the 2016 elections, he had decided to investigate the spread of misinformation on social media. He created software to easily capture data on hundreds of Facebook pages by identifying who clicked the “I Like” button on those pages.
“Once I identified this technique, I realized that scraping Facebook content would be a violation of their terms of service,” said Hickey. He consulted NewsHour executives, who concluded that the legal risks were too great. He, therefore, used much slower and less productive manual techniques, he said.
Aviv Ovadya, a disinformation researcher who worked for the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan, said the proposed change in terms of service could actually be beneficial to Facebook by “helping to strengthen their platform and could otherwise be missing.
Hickey and Ovadya are among the journalists and researchers whose work prompted the letter.