A group of First Amendment advocates has urged Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to change the social media giant’s platform rules to enable public service journalism and research on its platform.
August 6, 2018
Chief Executive Officer
1 Hacker Way
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,
We write to propose that Facebook amend its terms of service to create a safe
harbor for certain journalism and research on its platform.
As you know, Facebook influences public discourse in ways that are not fully
understood by the public or even by Facebook itself. Journalists and researchers
play a crucial role in illuminating this influence. Facebookas terms of service,
however, severely limit their ability to do that work, by prohibiting them from
using basic tools of digital investigation on Facebookas platform. We have attached
a proposed amendment to the terms of service that would establish a safe harbor
for certain kinds of journalism and research while appropriately protecting the
privacy of Facebookas users and the integrity of Facebookas platform. The safe
harbor is limited by design, and adoption of the proposed amendment would not
substitute for disclosure of information to journalists, researchers, and the general
public through other channels. We believe, however, that Facebookas
establishment of the safe harbor would meaningfully expand the space for digital
journalism and research that is especially urgent.
Because we are sending this letter on behalf of journalists and researchers who
would like to pursue projects that are manifestly in the public interest but are
barred by Facebookas terms of service, there is some urgency to our proposal. We
would appreciate a response to this letter by September 7, 2018.1
1 We are sending this letter on behalf of Kate Conger, a general assignment technology
reporter for the New York Times; Cameron Hickey, an Emmy Awardawinning journalist
and documentarian who has produced science and technology stories for the PBS
NewsHour; Kashmir Hill, a senior reporter for the Special Projects Desk at Gizmodo
Media Group; Arvind Narayanan, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Princeton
University; and Aviv Ovadya, former Chief Technologist at the Center for Social Media
Responsibility, University of Michigan School of Information (institutional affiliations are
provided for identification purposes only).
475 Riverside Drive, Suite 302, New York, NY 10115 knightcolumbia.org (646) 754-8500
Facebook has a singular influence on public discourse in the United States and
globally. Facebook has more than two billion users, including two-hundred million
in the United States. These users rely on Facebook to connect with each other as
well as with businesses, advocacy organizations, and governments. They depend
on Facebook for news, including news about politics, political candidates, and
elections. Facebook shapes how individuals engage with one another and with the
communities around them, with profound implications for society. For this reason,
there is extraordinary public interest in how Facebook worksafor example, what
relationships it encourages or discourages, what ways of interacting it permits or
prohibits, what information it highlights or suppresses, and what communities it
facilitates or forecloses.
Digital journalism and research are crucial to the publicas understanding of
Facebookas platform and its influence on our society. Many of the most important
stories written about Facebook and other social media platforms in recent months
have relied on basic tools of digital investigation. For example, research published
by an analyst with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and reported in The
Washington Post, uncovered the true reach of the Russian disinformation campaign
on Facebook. An investigation by Gizmodo showed how Facebookas aPeople You
May Knowa feature problematically exploits ashadowa profile data in order to
recommend friends to users. A story published by ProPublica revealed that
Facebookas self-service ad platform had enabled advertisers of rental housing to
discriminate against tenants based on race, disability, gender, and other protected
characteristics. And a story published by the New York Times exposed a vast trade
in fake Twitter followers, some of which impersonated real users.2
Facebookas terms of service limit this kind of journalism and research because
they ban tools that are often necessary to itaspecifically, the automated collection
of public information and the creation of temporary research accounts. Automated
collection allows journalists and researchers to generate statistical insights into
patterns, trends, and information flows on Facebookas platform. Temporary
research accounts allow journalists and researchers to assess how the platform
responds to different profiles and prompts.
Journalists and researchers who use tools in violation of Facebookas terms of
service risk serious consequences. Their accounts may be suspended or disabled.
They risk legal liability for breach of contract. The Department of Justice and
See Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel J.X. Dance, Richard Harris & Mark Hansen, The
Follower Factory, N.Y. Times, Jan. 27. 2018; Kashmir Hill & Surya Mattu, Keep Track of Who
Facebook Thinks You Know with This Nifty Tool, Gizmodo, Jan. 10, 2018; Craig Timberg,
Russian Propaganda May Have Been Shared Hundreds of Millions of Times, New Research Says,
Wash. Post, Oct. 5, 2017 (citing research by Jonathan Albright); Julia Angwin & Terry
Parris, Jr., Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race, ProPublica, Oct. 28, 2016.
Facebook have both at times interpreted the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to
prohibit violations of a websiteas terms of service.3 We are unaware of any case in
which Facebook has brought legal action against a journalist or researcher for a
violation of its terms of service. In multiple instances, however, Facebook has
instructed journalists or researchers to discontinue important investigative projects,
claiming that the projects violate Facebookas terms of service. As you undoubtedly
appreciate, the mere possibility of legal action has a significant chilling effect.4 We
have spoken to a number of journalists and researchers who have modified their
investigations to avoid violating Facebookas terms of service, even though doing so
made their work less valuable to the public. In some cases, the fear of liability led
them to abandon projects altogether.5
It is against this background that we propose that Facebook amend its terms of
service to establish a safe harbor for certain public interest journalism and research.
We understand that, in the wake of revelations concerning the Cambridge
Analytica scandal, Facebook is facing new pressure to protect the data that users
entrust to it. This pressure is warranted and indeed overdue. Addressing legitimate
privacy concerns, however, need not entail the obstruction of public-interest
journalism and research. Moreover, it is important to remember that journalism
and research often directly serve the interests of Facebookas users by exposing
privacy abuses and security risks.
We appreciate that Facebook has recently announced new transparency
initiatives, including a partnership with the Social Science Research Council
(SSRC). These efforts are laudable, but they are also insufficient. The SSRC
initiative, for example, is focused on peer-reviewed research rather than
journalism, and limited, at least initially, to the impact of social media on
democracy and elections. Facebookas adoption of our proposed amendment would
See, e.g., Sandvig v. Sessions, No. CV 16-1368-JDB, 2018 WL 1568881, at *11 (D.D.C.
Mar. 30, 2018) (aHere, the government has implicitlyaand in past prosecutions,
explicitlyaread the [CFAA] to include ToS violations.a); Pl.as Oppan to Mot. to Dismiss
at 6a7, Facebook, Inc. v. Maxbounty, Inc., No. 10-CV-4712-JF (N.D. Cal. Sept. 14, 2011); Pl.as
Oppan to Mot. to Dismiss at 6a7, Facebook, Inc. v. Power Ventures, Inc., No. 08-CV-05780
(N.D. Cal. Apr. 17, 2009).
See, e.g., Sandvig v. Sessions, 2018 WL 1568881, at *3 (noting that researchers have
been chilled from testing whether platformsa algorithms violate anti-discrimination laws).
To the extent that the CFAA bars journalists and researchers from undertaking the
kinds of investigations described here, the statute violates the First Amendment. See, e.g.,
Victoria Baranetsky, Data Journalism and the Law, Tow Center for Digital Journalism,
August 2018 (forthcoming); Esha Bhandari & Rachel Goodman, ACLU Challenges Computer
Crimes Law That Is Thwarting Research on Discrimination Online, ACLU, June 29, 2016.
Enforcing Facebookas terms of service against journalists and researchers engaged in this
work would also raise serious public policy concerns.
be an important supplement to the SSRC initiative and to other initiatives
Facebook has already announced.
The safe harbor we envision would permit journalists and researchers to
conduct public-interest investigations while protecting the privacy of Facebookas
users and the integrity of Facebookas platform. Specifically, it would provide that
an individual does not violate Facebookas terms of service by collecting publicly
available data by automated means, or by creating and using temporary research
accounts, as part of a news-gathering or research project, so long as the project
meets certain conditions.
First, the purpose of the project must be to inform the general public about
matters of public concern. Projects designed to inform the public about issues like
echo chambers, misinformation, and discrimination would satisfy this condition.
Projects designed to facilitate commercial data aggregation and targeted
advertising would not.
Second, the project must protect Facebookas users. Those who wish to take
advantage of the safe harbor must take reasonable measures to protect user
privacy. They must store data obtained from the platform securely. They must not
use it for any purpose other than to inform the general public about matters of
public concern. They must not sell it, license it, or transfer it to, for example, a data
aggregator. And they must not disclose any information that would readily identify
a user without the useras consent, unless the public interest in disclosure would
clearly outweigh the useras interest in privacy.
Projects involving the use of temporary research accounts must incorporate
reasonable measures to avoid misleading human Facebook users. This means, for
example, that temporary research accounts should generally be identified as such
in the accountsa public profiles.
Finally, the project must not interfere with the proper working or appearance
of Facebook. The safe harbor is intended for investigations of Facebookas platform,
not efforts to disrupt it. Individuals can take advantage of the safe harbor only if
their projects do not disable, overburden, or significantly impair Facebookas proper
We have drafted and attached a proposed amendment to Facebookas terms of
service that would give effect to this design. We emphasize that the proposed
amendment is intended as a proof of concept. Some of its terms may require
further definition. We also expect that, if Facebook were to adopt the amendment,
Facebook would refine the amendmentas language over time to clarify the scope of
the safe harbor and limit any abuses of it. We have proposed specific language as
a starting point in the hope that the specificity of the proposal will help clarify the
concept behind it. If you are sympathetic to the concept, we would be willing to
work with Facebookas legal and policy teams to develop and refine the
amendmentas specific language.
For the reasons alluded to above, there is some urgency to our proposal. We
are sending this letter on behalf of journalists and researchers who would like to
undertake investigations that are in the public interest but are barred by
Facebookas terms of service. Some of these investigations are time-sensitive, as they
involve, for example, the upcoming elections in the United States. Facebookas
establishment of the safe harbor would allow these journalists and researchers to
undertake their investigations without fear of legal sanction. As indicated above,
we would appreciate your response to this letter by September 7, 2018.
Thank you for your consideration.
Knight First Amendment Institute at
475 Riverside Drive, Suite 302
New York, NY 10115
cc: Sheryl Sandberg
Chief Operating Officer
Head of Global Policy Managment
Director of Privacy and Public Policy
Knight Institute proposed safe harbor
1. Safe harbor for certain news-gathering and research projects: Notwithstanding anything
else in the Terms, you do not violate the Terms by collecting public information through
automated means, or by creating or using temporary research accounts, as part of a newsgathering or research project, so long as you meet all of the following conditions.
1. The purpose of your project is to inform the general public about matters of
2. With respect to data that is collected through automated means, you take the
following measures to protect the privacy of Facebook users:
You take reasonable measures to prevent the theft or accidental
disclosure of the data.
You do not use the data for any purpose other than to inform the
general public about matters of public concern. For example, you do
Sell or license the data.
Directly or indirectly transfer any data (including anonymous,
aggregate, or derived data) to any ad network, data broker, or
other advertising or monetization-related service.
You do not publish or otherwise disclose any data that readily identifies
a Facebook user without that useras consent unless the public interest in
disclosure clearly outweighs the privacy interest of the user (for example,
where the data concerns a public figure or shows that the user is engaged
in serious unlawful activity).
3. If your project entails the creation of a temporary research account, you take
reasonable measures to avoid misleading human Facebook users through that
account. A temporary research account should generally be identified as such in
the accountas public profile.
4. You do not do anything that could disable, overburden, or significantly impair the
proper working or appearance of Facebook.