Conflict with Facebook: Algorithmwatch ends Instagram project

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A German research project that wanted to explore Instagram’s recommendation algorithm has been discontinued after a dispute with parent company Facebook. The organization “Algorithmwatch” reported on Friday that the group had accused it of violating the terms of use, which prohibit the automatic collection of data. In view of Facebook’s threat to take “more formal steps”, the project was terminated.

The project was launched in March 2020 to investigate how Instagram’s algorithm prioritizes images and videos. Around 1,500 volunteers installed a browser add-on that read their Instagram newsfeeds and sent the data to Algorithmwatch. From the data collected, the research team had concluded, among other things, that users would be encouraged to post pictures with a lot of bare skin and that politicians would get a greater reach if they did not use text. Facebook denied these results.

Facebook pointed out to Algorithmwatch in May that the project not only violates the terms of use, which prohibit the automated collection of data, but also the GDPR, the organization said on Friday. Some of the data collected came from users who would never have consented to the project, but whose images were displayed in the add-on users’ feed. Algorithmwatch betontthat this data was deleted “as soon as it arrived on our server” and refers to the open source code Add-ons.

Facebook has threatened “more formal steps” if the problem is not resolved on their terms, Algorithmwatch explains and calls it a “barely concealed threat”. That is why it was decided on July 13th to end the project. The US company contradicts this: “We have contacted them about our concerns about their approach, so that they can adapt to the terms of use and continue their research, as we do regularly with other research groups,” said a Facebook spokesman. “We didn’t threaten to sue them.”

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Algorithmwatch has now decided to go public after Facebook blocked a similar project from New York University. The US research team used the AdObserver plug-in to analyze ads with political content on the online network on Facebook. Facebook cut the project’s access to user data last week. As a result, CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to be shouted at by the US regulatory authority FTC.

“We work with hundreds of groups to support research on important topics. We provide data sets and access to APIs,” said the dpa Facebook spokesman on Friday. “We want to keep working with independent researchers, but in ways that don’t put data or people’s privacy at risk.” Previously, the FTC had expressed concern that Facebook was using data protection “as a pretext to promote other goals”.


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