Facebook didn't include the term "research" in its policy on the use of personal data until four months after its 'emotional contagion' experiment on nearly 700,000 unwitting users had concluded.
Not many people read a company's data use policy when they sign up to a service as such documents are often long, complicated, and lack context. But Facebook's policy has come into focus this week as debate continues over whether its data scientist Adam Kramar had — or even needed — 'informed consent' to run a one-week experiment in January 2012 where the Facebook news feeds of 689,003 users were altered to see how negative or positive posts from friends impacted the subject's subsequent posts.
An ethical debate erupted this week after a blog on Animal New York drew attention to the results of the study, which Kramar and researchers from Cornell University and the University of California published in March. The blog likened the experiment to Facebook "using us as lab rats".
The paper outlines the researchers' exploration into how 'emotional contagion' works when people aren't in physical proximity. Kramar also explained in a blog responding to the outrage that the original paper didn't outline Facebook's motivations adequately: Facebook conducted the experiment, he said, because it was worried that negative posts would cause people to stop using its product.
"The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product. We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends' negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook. We didn't clearly state our motivations in the paper," he wrote.
Critics and supporters of Facebook's right to conduct the study have honed in on the term "research" in its data-usage policy. The key sentence is that the company will use data "for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement".
Critics have said that simply including the term "research" in dense documents such as data policies is not enough to gain informed consent. Supporters have likened Facebook's experiment to A/B testing, where companies show two different versions to different user groups to see what works best.
However, the focus on the term 'research' may be a little misplaced since, as Forbes reported today, at the time the study ran, Facebook hadn't even included the term and only did so in May 2012, as it outlines here.
According to Facebook, while it felt it necessary to add the term, it doesn't believe its inclusion was needed in order to run experiments in the name of improving its own services.
"When someone signs up for Facebook, we've always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer," a Facebook spokesperson told Forbes.