16:02 23rd Sep, 2021
Facebook Changes News Feed Code to Block Watchdogs from Data Collection | TechTree.com
Facebook Changes News Feed Code to Block Watchdogs from Data Collection
Facebook has begun rolling out an update that is interfering with watchdogs monitoring the platform.
The Markup has proof that Facebook has made changes to its code that foils automated data collection of news feed posts—an auditing technique that groups like The Markup, NYU’s Ad Observatory, and other journalists and researchers use to monitor what’s happening on the platform.
The changes, which hamper features meant to improve accessibility for visually impaired users, also impacts browser-based ad blocking services. The new code ruins the user experience for people who are visually impaired, a group that has struggled to use Facebook in the past.
“We constantly make code changes across our services, but we did not make any code changes to block these research projects,” Lindy Wagner, communications manager at Facebook, said in an email to The Markup.
Following the changes, the Citizen Browser project experienced a drop in data collection rates from early September, prompting the investigation that uncovered these changes to the code. At around the same time, users of certain ad blockers noticed a decrease in their effectiveness.
Laura Edelson, founder of the Ad Observatory project and a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and, expressed dismay at Facebook’s latest move impacting data collection. The website update had at first caused a sharp drop in the amount of data collected by the Ad Observatory, she said, but a fix was found that allowed the team to collect data at normal levels.
“I think it’s unfortunate that Facebook is continuing to fight with researchers rather than work with them,” she said.
Facebook has made similar tweaks to frustrate researchers and ad blockers in the past, often with the collateral result of making the platform less accessible to visually impaired users.
“Our accessibility features largely appear to be working as normal, however we are investigating the claim,” Facebook’s Wagner said.
Jared Smith, associate director of accessibility research and training nonprofit WebAIM, expressed concerns about the code in Facebook’s web update after reviewing it for The Markup.
“We’ve seen misuse of technologies like this for things like search engine optimization, but this is on an entirely different scale,” he added.
Facebook users have complained about new features that were rolled out but were incompatible with screen readers in the past. But more recently the company has received plaudits for using AI-powered image recognition to generate alt text for images, which allowed visually impaired users to access more content in the news feed.
“I suspect that the Facebook team implementing these apparent anti-transparency mechanisms does not realize that there are potential accessibility consequences to what they’re doing,” said Blake E. Reid, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School who focuses on technology accessibility and policy.
Sen. Ron Wyden, who has criticized the company in the past, told The Markup in an emailed statement that Facebook’s latest move showed a callous disregard for visually impaired users.
“It is contemptible that Facebook would misuse accessibility features for users with disabilities just to foil legitimate research and journalism,” he said.
Facebook has always claimed that it wants to share data with researchers, Edelson said, but in reality numerous social scientists have faced obstacles when trying to work with the platform.
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