How to think about the Research Data Agreement with Facebook

Gary King and Nathaniel Persily, Co-chairs
Social Science One


The ambition and importance of what was initially known as the Facebook Election Commission, now Social Science One, is only equaled by the challenges we have faced to establish the legal, privacy, and partnership frameworks needed to get this fully off the ground. Yet, progress is now coming at a much faster clip. We are encouraged by this progress and are excited about the monumental consequences to come for the research community and for society at large.  

Following the announcement of the first grantees in April, we are a big step closer to providing society with insights and information about how social media impacts elections and democracy. After months of work, we can report that on behalf of Social Science One we have completed negotiations over the principles to govern the relationship between researchers (and their universities) and Facebook as articulated in a new Research Data Agreement. Signing this agreement enables approved researchers to obtain legal, trusted, secure, and privacy-protected access to Facebook data under the Social Science One framework.Those of you who receive grants through the SSRC or apply for Facebook data access through our RFPs will need to sign this agreement.

As we negotiated this agreement, we consulted with attorneys from the general counsel offices, the offices of sponsored research, and offices for technology development at our universities and half a dozen others, in addition to our own independent legal counsel.  The unprecedented nature of this partnership and the special data access researchers will receive has led to the inclusion of a few unusually restrictive provisions researchers may not have encountered before. If you are granted access to the data, we suggest you talk to attorneys at your university to understand this further and make an informed decision, but here is a summary of a few of the key provisions and how we think about them.

One area to highlight is the document’s so-called “open science” provision, which requires that researchers agree not to seek patent protection for any invention that results from access to Facebook’s confidential information. Facebook’s goal for this provision is to ensure that research results arising from access to Facebook confidential information can be made available to others for future research and that researchers cannot use Facebook data under this research program to patent technology that could limit the benefits to the research community or restrict Facebook’s ability to conduct business.

We expect that few patentable inventions are likely to result from these research projects, although some (such as methods of analysis or computation) are certainly possible. We thus encourage you to discuss this section with your employers carefully. As part of our own review of the document, we considered how our work might have been impacted by this requirement, if we had received access under the Social Science One framework; while stringent, we feel confident that we could comply with the provisions of the agreement, and maintain intellectual property rights, by documenting intellectual property created either prior to accessing Facebook confidential information or during the same time period if created and reduced to practice on a separate project without using Facebook’s confidential information. Nevertheless, each researcher should understand the impact this provision may have on their own work.

One of the most important features of the Research Data  Agreement, and for that matter, Social Science One’s relationship with Facebook, is the requirement that Facebook does not retain the right of pre-publication approval for research arising out of this project.  That feature is critical to the independence of our project and the integrity of the research that results (and is rare for any company to agree to). However, Facebook retains the right to conduct a privacy review to help researchers ensure that no confidential or private information is disclosed as a result of publication. Although we expect no privacy related issues to arise at the publication stage given the extraordinary protections we have in place, Social Science One commission members will report publicly if this review is abused or poses other difficulties for researchers.

The agreement also includes a “Data Access Addendum”, which deals with a number of subjects, such as access credentials, submission of data access requests, and data access requirements that may be relevant to your research. As with other provisions, we encourage you to discuss these terms with your university offices of sponsored research, university general counsel, technology development, etc. so that you and your home institutions are aware of your rights and obligations and how they relate to your specific circumstances.

Finally, the last section of the document describes responsibilities under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation; the GDPR is a new set of laws governing privacy that, given the nature of our data, may affect us all even if we are not located in the EU.

While this document is unusual in some important areas, this agreement should enable you to carry out path-breaking research in new ways without disrupting any of your other work. We are excited to facilitate unprecedented access to highly informative Facebook data, and look forward to continuing to work with you.