Knight Institute Calls on Facebook to Lift Restrictions on Digital Journalism and Research

In a letter sent yesterday, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University asked Facebook to amend its terms of service to establish a “safe harbor” for public-interest journalism and research focused on Facebook’s platform. The Knight Institute sent the letter on behalf of journalists and researchers who study Facebook but whose investigations are impeded because Facebook’s terms of service categorically prohibit the use of certain digital tools.

“We need to better understand how Facebook’s human and algorithmic decisions are influencing public discourse and shaping our democracy,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s Executive Director. “Facebook should lift the restrictions that obstruct digital journalists and researchers from studying the forces at work on its platform.”

In its letter, the Knight Institute explains that Facebook’s terms of service impede journalism and research by prohibiting two basic tools of digital investigation: the automated collection of public information (sometimes called “scraping”) and the creation of temporary research accounts. Journalists and researchers who use these tools risk account suspensions and shutdowns, legal liability for breach of contract, as well as civil and criminal liability under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — a statute that has been interpreted by Facebook, federal prosecutors, and some courts to apply to terms- of-service violations.

“Journalists and researchers who undertake public-interest investigations of social media platforms shouldn’t have to operate under the threat of legal sanction,” said Alex Abdo, a senior staff attorney with the Institute. “Amending Facebook’s terms of service would ensure that journalists and researchers can do the work the public urgently needs them to do.” (Read more…)