WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Trade Commission criticized Facebook Inc on Thursday for making "misleading claims" to explain why it had disabled the accounts of researchers studying political ads on the social media platform.
Facebook said on Tuesday it had cut off the personal accounts and access of the New York University researchers because of concerns about other users' privacy.
Facebook had initially said that the decision was made out of a need for the social media giant to live up to a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission.
But Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne later told Wired that the consent decree was not a reason to disable the researchers' accounts. Instead, the decree required the creation of rules for a privacy program, which is what he said the researchers had violated.
Laura Edelson, one of the researchers, denied any wrongdoing, Wired said.
The FTC posted a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying that it was "inaccurate" that the company's actions were required under the 2019 consent decree.
"While I appreciate that Facebook has now corrected the record, I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter," wrote Sam Levine, the FTC's acting director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
"The FTC received no notice that Facebook would be publicly invoking our consent decree to justify terminating academic research earlier this week."
Facebook paid a record-setting $5 billion fine to resolve the FTC probe into its privacy practices and boosted safeguards on user data.
"While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope that the company is not invoking privacy – much less the FTC consent order – as a pretext to advance other aims," he wrote.
Separately, the FTC sued Facebook in December for allegedly violating antitrust law. That complaint was dismissed and the agency has an Aug. 19 deadline to refile it.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Stephen Coates)