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Unprecedented Facebook Data-Sharing Plan Takes Off After Privacy Delays 

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When the independent research commission Social Science One launched in 2018 to study Facebook data, scientists never thought it would take two years to get their hands on information, according to reports on Thursday (Feb. 13). Finally, after numerous privacy delays, the joint commission established by Facebook and the Social Science Research Council announced that it now had access to one of the largest social science datasets ever constructed. 

Facebook had agreed to turn data over to independent researchers so they could better understand patterns in fake news and the quality of information people share on Facebook. The partnership was even considered a future data-sharing template for tech platforms and outside researchers.

But releasing the data while also keeping user data private required substantial research requiring 20 full-time staffers and $11 million, Facebook said.

Some privacy advocates were against the project. The Electronic Privacy Information Center said in a 2018 letter that the sharing violated Europe’s data-privacy law and Facebook’s obligations under its 2011 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) consent decree. 

“When this project began, we thought the political and legal aspects of our job were over,” said the professors leading the project, Harvard University’s Gary King and Stanford University’s Nathaniel Persily. “In fact, most of the last 20 months has involved negotiating with Facebook.” 

Social Science One was backed by nonprofits including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation, and was supposed to offer access to some billion gigabytes of data about frequently-shared links. Facebook was to have no input about the data access and neither review nor refute publication of the conclusions.

A study of Russian disinformation in Germany’s 2017 election and an analysis of Facebook’s influence on Taiwanese civic participation were two projects approved for grants.

“The urgency of this research cannot be overstated,” King and Persily said on Social Science One’s website last April. “We believe we can provide the fuel in the form of data access to the scholarly community to help solve some of the major issues in social media that affect elections and democracy across the world.”

Social Science One’s leaders say they expect research from the data set could be produced within a few months.

More than 60 academics from around the world will receive access to Facebook’s data. Academics will be able to look at websites linked by Facebook users from January 2017 to February 2019, as well as the system that advertisers and marketers use to access the social media site’s data. In addition, the academics will be able to see CrowdTangle, a tool that shows publishers how content is spreading across the site.

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