NEW YORK – More than 200 digital researchers have signed an open letter in support of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University’s efforts to persuade Facebook to amend its terms of service to establish a “safe harbor” for public-interest journalism and research on the platform. This safe harbor would permit researchers and journalists to study Facebook’s platform using basic tools of digital investigation whose use might otherwise violate Facebook’s terms of service.

“Facebook’s human and algorithmic decisions are shaping public discourse, influencing our elections, and affecting human rights struggles around the world. Yet the platform obstructs much of the work that could be done to understand that influence,” said Alex Abdo, the Knight Institute’s Litigation Director. “Given this remarkable show of support for a safe harbor by digital researchers, we are hopeful that Facebook will lift the restrictions to allow independent research that would shed light on the ways in which the platform is affecting humanity.”

The letter of support comes in the midst of ongoing negotiations between the Knight Institute and Facebook about the safe-harbor proposal. The Knight Institute sent a letter to the tech giant in August 2018 urging it to amend its terms of service to create “a safe harbor for certain kinds of journalism and research while appropriately protecting the privacy of Facebook’s users and the integrity of Facebook’s platform.” In its public response to this proposal, Facebook acknowledged that its terms of service “sometimes get in the way of [researchers’ and journalists’] work.” However, it contended that researchers and journalists can obtain the data they need through other channels. “This is mainly not true,” today’s letter explains.

“Given the extraordinary influence Facebook exerts over people's lives, it is crucial for independent parties, such as researchers and journalists, to be able to study all aspects of its algorithms and data practices,” said signatory Aleksandra Korolova, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at University of Southern California. “Because of the very personalized, social, and data-driven nature of Facebook's platform, truly rigorous and informative studies of many aspects of it are impossible without automated data collection, large-scale participation of individuals, or the creation of test accounts. The tools Facebook currently provides significantly limit what can be studied.”

"As researchers, we have our hands tied when it comes to accessing the data we need to independently study Facebook without violating its terms of service,” said signatory Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and Past President of the Association of Internet Researchers. “By implementing a safe harbor, Facebook would be eliminating the biggest barrier preventing us from truly understanding how the social network affects our elections and our society.”

More than 200 digital researchers from around the world have signed the letter, which the Knight Institute shared with Facebook today.

See the full list of signatories and read the letter here.