Ethics on Facebook’s mind in wake of user emotion tests

Consumer protection, News, Privacy

Like it or hate it, social media has infiltrated nearly every industry, making it an unavoidable part of our daily lives. As social networking becomes ubiquitous, many users are beginning to realize the true breadth of outlets like Facebook. This was recently highlighted for users by the revelation that signing up for the service could result in unbeknownst participation in sensitive research experiments.

Last week, the social media kingpin acknowledged several psychological experiments it performed on unknowing users in 2012. Some Facebook users have expressed outrage over the intrusion while others take the position that social media outlets are, by design, a hotbed for psychological outbursts that create perfect fodder for experimental research. Differences of opinion notwithstanding, federal and international laws exist to govern the scientific observation of humans, leaving many to ponder: is this legal?

Addressing the ‘informed consent’ rule

Federal law contains many provisions pertaining to the concept of informed consent, a doctrine meant to protect individuals from being studied or observed for research without their knowledge and approval. Under the rules, researchers are generally required to provide subjects with the following prior to initiating the study:

  • A statement explaining that the study involves research
  • A description of the purpose of the research
  • An estimate of the experiment’s duration and an outline of procedures involved
  • A description of any risks or benefits the subject could experience
  • A statement regarding confidentiality
  • An explanation regarding treatment or compensation if an injury occurs, particularly if the research involves more than nominal risk
  • Identification of a contact person involved in the research
  • A statement that the research is voluntary and that no expense or harm will occur if the participant opts out of the experiment

According to Facebook, for one week in January 2012 it tinkered with the news feeds of approximately 700,000 users to determine the effect of positive and negative posts. The results unsurprisingly revealed that users tended to post a happier update after reading positive posts and sadder updates following more negative posts.

International regulators weigh in on the issue

Despite federal regulations that prohibit secret psychological studies, the U.S. government has remained relatively silent on this issue. However, authorities in Europe have already begun investigating whether Facebook has violated informed consent laws and regulations regarding the unlawful invasion of privacy.

Ireland’s Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, responsible for oversight on Facebook outside North America because Dublin serves as the company’s headquarters for international operations, sent a series of inquiries to determine if the Facebook research team received consent from users before conducting the experiments. Facebook has yet to respond.

Meanwhile, the Information Commissioner’s Office of Britain has opened its own investigation into whether the experiments violated privacy laws. The office has confirmed the investigation is underway but has yet to determine if any laws were broken during the experiment.

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg remarked, “We clearly communicated really badly about this and that we really regret….We do research in an ongoing way, in a very privacy protective way, to improve our services and this was done with that goal.”

The fine print: Have we all consented?

According to Facebook, nothing about its unannounced psychological experiments violated informed consent or privacy laws, since all users consented to web-based experimentation by agreeing to the terms and conditions of the site. More specifically, the company points to the language of its data use policy allowing it to use members’ information for “internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

Assuming Facebook is within its rights contractually, are ethical considerations at play in an experiment that requires researchers to expose users to negativity and sadness unnecessarily? Perhaps. The aforementioned federal regulations also require that certain researchers obtain approval from an internal review board before in engaging in “human subjects research.” However, Facebook may still be able to circumvent these rules as institutional review board authorization is generally reserved for those experiments conducted for the purposes of Food and Drug Administration approval or with the help of federal funding.

Adding fuel to the fire, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the journal that published the Facebook study, recently published an expression of concern that reiterates that offering test subjects informed consent and the opportunity to opt out is the best practice for conducting social research.

Despite the uproar it caused, the Facebook social study may not be unique. Reportedly, web-based companies regularly rely on data from users to make decisions about products, marketing strategies and other business operations. For example, Google Inc. admits to running thousands of tests and experiments, including one in which the company tested 41 different shades of the color blue on the homepage to determine which resulted in the highest level of engagement from users.

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