Democracy & Elections

The Lawfare Podcast: Facebook Shuts Down Research On Itself

Jen Patja, Evelyn Douek, Quinta Jurecic, Alex Abdo
Thursday, August 19, 2021, 12:00 PM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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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?

Jen Patja is the editor and producer of The Lawfare Podcast and Rational Security. She currently serves as the Co-Executive Director of Virginia Civics, a nonprofit organization that empowers the next generation of leaders in Virginia by promoting constitutional literacy, critical thinking, and civic engagement. She is the former Deputy Director of the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier and has been a freelance editor for over 20 years.
Evelyn Douek is an Assistant Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and Senior Research Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. She holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School on the topic of private and public regulation of online speech. Prior to attending HLS, Evelyn was an Associate (clerk) to the Honourable Chief Justice Susan Kiefel of the High Court of Australia. She received her LL.B. from UNSW Sydney, where she was Executive Editor of the UNSW Law Journal.
Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.
Alex Abdo is the litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

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