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Dear Mark Zuckerberg,

Voting has already begun in one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history. More than ever before in American politics, the members of the public need to know who is trying to influence them and how.

Yet at this critical moment for the country, Facebook has threatened to shut down an independent research effort studying political ad targeting on the platform. In a cease + desist letter, Facebook directed New York University to shut down its Ad Observer browser plug-in, a tool that allows Facebook users to volunteer to contribute information about the ads and ad targeting they encounter on the platform. Facebook also demanded that the project delete all the data it has collected.

Ad Observer allows journalists and researchers to better understand the political misinformation and manipulation that spreads daily on your platform. It has been a resource for substantive reporting on the upcoming election, used by dozens of newsrooms, from Florida to Utah, from outlets like the Houston Chronicle and Missouri Independent to Buzzfeed and The Markup.

Facebook claims its motive for threatening Ad Observer is that browser plugins and extensions, like Ad Observer, could violate Facebook users’ privacy. But Ad Observer only collects information about the ads people see, not personal posts or users’ personal information. What is true is that the Ad Observatory project has revealed serious flaws in Facebook’s advertising transparency policies. The Ad Observatory project helped researchers and journalists demonstrate that Facebook:

Facebook professes to be dedicated to advertising transparency. But its actions against Ad Observatory are part of a record revealing otherwise. Ahead of the EU elections last year, Facebook blocked similar tools, which were also designed to address similar gaps and flaws in Facebook’s Ad Library.

Preserving a healthy democracy requires that the public, journalists and policymakers have access to credible, verifiable information and research. Facebook and all other platforms should stop interfering with researchers and journalists who are studying the platform in the public interest.

We call on Facebook to withdraw its cease and desist demand for the Ad Observer plug-in tool.

Instead, Facebook should use the findings from Ad Observer and other monitoring tools to improve political ad transparency, including Facebook’s own tool which The New York Times has dubbed “effectively useless.” Indeed, Facebook along with other platforms should publicly disclose advertising on their platforms, including ad spending and targeting.

The world is watching. Facebook must do better.


Access Now

Accountable Tech

AI Now Institute at NYU

American Press Institute

Arab American Institute (AAI)


Association of Alternative Newsmedia

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Center for American Progress Action Fund

Center for Democracy and Technology

Center for Digital Democracy

Colorado Media Project

Colorado News Collaborative

Common Cause

Common Sense Media

Consumer Federation of America

Consumer Reports

Data & Society

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Fight for the Future

Free Press

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Global Project Against Hate and Extremism

Global Witness

Harmony Labs

Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at George Washington University

Institute for Nonprofit News

Institute for Strategic Dialogue

International Women’s Media Foundation

Internet Archive


The Markup


Mother Jones

Mozilla Foundation

National Conference on Citizenship

National Hispanic Media Coalition

New America’s Open Technology Institute

New Mexico Local News Fund

North Carolina Local News Lab Fund

NYC Media Lab

Online News Association

Open Media and Information Companies Initiative (OPEN MIC)

Open the Government

PEN America

Public Knowledge

Public News Service

Ranking Digital Rights

Simply Secure

Society of Professional Journalists

Stop Online Violence Against Women Inc.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies

UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry

Individual signatories:

Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, UNC at Chapel Hill

Bill Adair, Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy, Duke University

Sarah Cohen, Professor & Knight Chair in Journalism, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism / Arizona State University

Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism, Kent State University

Cameron Hickey, Program Director for Algorithmic Transparency, National Conference on Citizenship

Angie Drobnic Holan, PolitiFact Editor-in-Chief

Brant Houston, Professor and Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting, Director of Graduate Studies

Kathy Kiely, Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism

Damon Kiesow, Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing, Missouri School of Journalism

Jodi Upton, Knight Chair, Data and Exploratory Journalism Newhouse School, Syracuse University

Claire Wardle, First Draft News

Stephen Wolgast, Professor and Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting

Giannina Segnini, Knight Chair in Data Journalism; Director of the Data Journalism Degree, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University

Matthew Wright, Professor of Computing Security and Director of Research for the Global Cybersecurity Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology

Kristy Roschke, Managing Director, News Co/Lab, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University

Dan Gillmor, Director, News Co/Lab and Professor of Practice, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University

Mindy McAdams, Knight Chair for Journalism Technologies and the Democratic Process, College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida

Sabriya Rice, Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, UGA College of Journalism & Mass Communication

John Affleck, Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society, Penn State University

Dana Priest, Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland

Sarah T. Roberts, Co-Founder and Co-Director, UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry

Safiya Umoja Noble, Co-Founder and Co-Director, UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry

Amelia Acker, Assistant Professor, School of Information, University of Texas at Austin

Aleksandra Korolova, WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor of Computer Science, University of Southern California

Mark Horvit, Director, State Government Reporting Program, University of Missouri School of Journalism

Shannon McGregor, Assistant Professor, Hussman School of Journalism and Media, UNC

Lynn Schofield Clark, Professor, Chair & Director, Estlow Center for Journalism & New Media, Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies, University of Denver

Rosental Alves, Professor, Knight Chair in Journalism & UNESCO Chair in Communication, Knight Center Director, University of Texas at Austin

Jumana Abu-Ghazaleh, Founder, Pivot For Humanity

Please email [email protected] if you're interested in adding your support to this letter.