File this under “lose-lose” for Facebook.
A group of high-profile researchers and journalists sent a formal request to social media giant to amend its Terms of Service in order to enable studies of Facebook that promote the public good. But either way Facebook responds could put the company in a tight spot.
The Knight First Amendment Institute sent a letter to Facebook about the way its Terms of Service apply to journalists and researchers. The letter was cosigned by journalists from the New York Times and several other publications as well as experts from handful of academic institutions.
They are asking Facebook to amend its ToS to include a “Safe Harbor” policy for people using Facebook for studies that benefit the public good. Facebook has locked down its platform in recent years, in large part to prevent more data scandals like Cambridge Analytica, but it’s also had the effect of also cutting off legitimate research about Facebook — the kind of research that wants to closely examine how content on the network is shared and distributed.
“Facebook’s establishment of the safe harbor would meaningfully expand the space for digital journalism and research that is especially urgent,” the letter reads.
Currently, Facebook does not allow anyone to scrape data from Facebook, or to create profiles for the purpose of conducting research. The letter points out that anyone who does so may be subject to legal action under the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act.
While this policy is clearly intended to keep out bad actors, it’s also a barricade against researchers. So the foundation is asking Facebook to essentially waive these ToS for journalists and researchers who conform to a very specific set of requirements: those that are conducting research for the benefit of the public good, and only those who take measures to safeguard — and definitely not sell — any data.
This all sounds incredibly reasonable, and it would be a good look (not to mention good for public discourse, knowledge, and transparency) for Facebook to listen to journalists, rather than prescribe its own standards for the industry it helped corrode.
But from a business perspective, this is actually a tricky one for Facebook. And the question of what Facebook owes to journalists and researchers is not so clear-cut.
If Facebook denies (or ignores) this letter, it could make it look like Facebook is not willing to work with those attempting to do work, using the platform, on behalf of the public good. That would look bad for a company that likes to paint itself as in the business of making the world a better place.
But Facebook has good reason to be guarded about its data and disallow any kind of collection of that data. Aleksandr Kogan, the data scientist behind the data-scraping app that made the Cambridge Analytica scandal possible, was an academic researcher, after all.
Certainly, not all — or even many — researchers are as unethical as Kogan, but Facebook may now believe that no matter how well-intended researchers may be, the risk of a breach (of “trust” or otherwise) is simply too great. In the wake of Cambridge Analytica, that’s pretty understandable.
There’s also the criticism of Facebook that it has unfairly exposed its users to experiments without their knowledge or consent. Perhaps Facebook really is trying to make good on promises to stop treating its users like guinea pigs. Providing dispensation to journalists and researchers to scrape Facebook data for the sake of their work would go against that.
But the biggest sticking point here is that perhaps this shouldn’t be a Terms of Service issue, at all. The law to which the authors ascribe the potential “chilling effect” is the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act, which has been on the books since the 1980s. It has been criticized as outdated, and it’s the incredibly harsh law that DAs used to prosecute Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, which ultimately led to his suicide. Making a ToS violation an actual crime is not necessarily proportionate.
At the heart of all of this is Facebook’s scale. Facebook is a for-profit company, but it’s also used by more than 2 billion people around the globe. At that scale, should it be the sole determiner of whether it can or should be a resource for knowledge?
As the letter’s authors point out, it is certainly in the interest of Facebook and its users to learn more about the world through Facebook, and how Facebook affects the world in turn. But the matter of whether Facebook should be the body to allow or deny this power may not be as clear. But whether it keeps its shields up or is forced to be more transparent, this is once again a losing proposition for the weary social media giant.