News Gathering

Knight Institute Urges Facebook To Change Policy To Create “Safe Harbor” For Journalists And Researchers

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In a letter sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, The Knight First Amendment Institute called on the platform to amend its terms of service to allow journalists and researchers to safely operate on the platform.

The letter, sent on behalf of three journalists and two academic researchers, claims:

“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. Facebook’s terms of service, however, severely limit their ability to do that work, by prohibiting them from using basic tools of digital investigation on Facebook’s platform.”

Under the current rules, researchers risk having their accounts suspended and disabled, as well as a legal liability for breach of contract under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The request comes at a time when Facebook is facing pressure to enforce privacy rules in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its failure to stop Russian Facebook accounts from being involved with the 2016 presidential election.

News outlets report that Campbell Brown, head of global news partnerships at Facebook, responded to the letter in a statement saying: “Journalists and researchers play a critical role in helping people better understand companies and their products — as well as holding us accountable when we get things wrong. We do have strict limits in place on how third parties can use people’s information, and we recognize that these sometimes get in the way of this work.”

The Knight Institute proposed a series of changes for news gathering and research purposes and asked Facebook to respond to by September 7.

The New York Times> The Washington Post>

Opinion & Analysis

The Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press and Freedom Of The Press Foundation write in support of Knight’s proposal.

RCFP>  Freedom Of The Press Foundation>

Alison Frankel writes in Reuters on how journalists and researchers are worried about the prospect of civil and criminal exposure under the CFAA for violating terms of service, even though Facebook has not made that claim in litigation against a journalists or researcher so far.


Gizmodo reporter Kashmir Hill (one of the journalists listed in the letter) explains the need for the amended terms of service. Last year, Gizmodo publicly released an online tool created to study Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature that prompted Facebook to inform them that the tool violated the terms of service.


Will Facebook’s response be a “lose-lose”? Rachel Kraus of Mashable suggests that Facebook is in a tough spot whether it grants or denies Knight’s request. On the one hand, Facebook risks looking like it is resistant to those looking to use the platform for public good if it ignores the letter, but on the other, its inclination to guard data from collection is warranted.


Christine Schmidt of Nieman Lab poses a question to the Knight Institute: Does this safe harbor give Facebook the ability to decide who is involved with news-gathering and research projects?

Nieman Lab>

Documents & Resources

Knight Institute Letter> Knight Institute Press Release>