USENIX Statement on the 2021 Internet Defense Prize

Since 2014, Facebook has awarded the Internet Defense Prize (IDP) in partnership with USENIX at the annual USENIX Security Symposium. An ongoing dispute between Facebook and security researchers at the NYU Ad Observatory project (some of whom are members of the USENIX community) caused the USENIX Board of Directors to carefully consider this ongoing partnership. 

In April, when the USENIX Security 21 Awards Committee was beginning their work to determine recommendations for the Internet Defense Prize, the USENIX Board of Directors was deeply concerned, but hoped that Facebook and the researchers involved would come to a resolution to allow the research to proceed. The 2021 Internet Defense Prize determination process has occurred over the months since that decision, and the winners will be announced soon after USENIX Security ’21.

The Ad Observatory conducts research into political advertising and transparency online. The research involves volunteers installing an open source browser plugin that collects information about the ads shown to the volunteers. Facebook sent cease-and-desist letters to the researchers in an attempt to shut down this research. Last week, Facebook announced its decision to disable the Ad Observatory researchers’ accounts.

Supporting research is fundamental to USENIX’s mission and for this reason, we did not take lightly our decision to continue the partnership with Facebook in 2021. We had three separate Board discussions on the topic in the months leading up to the beginning of the awards process. A major consideration was that the Internet Defense Prize is a benefit for researchers, and if USENIX terminated its partnership with Facebook it would reduce the opportunity for researchers in our community to obtain financial support for their work.

The USENIX Board will continue to closely monitor the ongoing situation and make future determinations accordingly. USENIX welcomes the greater clarity on the legal status of the kind of research conducted by the Ad Observatory that the recent FTC position has provided. It is clear that ethical research in the public interest, which is not detrimental to individual privacy, should be supported both by regulators and by the computing industry. USENIX encourages collaboration between researchers and our industry partners in order to ensure the protection and defense of the Internet.