Researchers studying Instagram’s algorithm said they were forced to shut down their project after Facebook threatened to sue them.
AlgorithmWatch, a German research and advocacy organization, issued a statement Friday alleging Facebook had threatened it with legal action. The group was researching Instagram’s news feed algorithm by recruiting volunteers to install a browser extension that automatically scraped their Instagram newsfeed data.
Researchers allege Facebook, the owner of Instagram, told them the extension violated its terms of service and the company would pursue a “more formal engagement” if they did not disable it. The group said this was a “thinly veiled threat.”
“Facebook’s reaction shows that any organization that attempts to shed light on one of their algorithms is under constant threat of being sued,” the researchers wrote. The group shut down its project on July 13, citing fear of legal action from the tech giant.
Facebook denied it threatened the researchers, and said it repeatedly contacted the group to find ways to continue the project without violating user privacy.
“We did not threaten to sue them,” a Facebook spokesperson told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The tech giant explicitly bans the use of “scrapers,” or automated data collection software, in its terms of service. Facebook also said AlgorithmWatch collected data from users who were not participating in the research project, which the company said infringed on user privacy.
“We believe in independent research into our platform and have worked hard to allow many groups to do it, including AlgorithmWatch – but just not at the expense of anyone’s privacy,” the Facebook spokesperson said. “We had concerns with their practices, which is why we contacted them multiple times so they could come into compliance with our terms and continue their research, as we routinely do with other research groups when we identify similar concerns.”
The researchers argued their extension was in compliance with Facebook’s terms of service as it deleted the data it collected from users not participating in the research project.
“We only collected data related to content that Facebook displayed to the volunteers who installed the add-on,” the group said.
Facebook cited similar privacy concerns when it disabled the accounts of a New York University research project last week. That project also employed a data-scraping tool to collect information on the political ads shown to Facebook users.
The tech company provides researchers with several tools to study its algorithms and trends, such as its Ad Library containing all advertisements currently running on the platform. However, the researchers said they “cannot rely” on data Facebook provides.
AlgorithmWatch did not respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.
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