EPIC files complaint over Facebook emotion experiment

EPIC files complaint over Facebook emotion experiment

Summary: The Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) has called on the US Federal Trade Commission to investigate and take action against Facebook for experimenting on 700,000 users.

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The Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) in the US has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over Facebook's psychological experiment on 700,000 users.

In its complaint (PDF), the public interest research centre calls on for the FTC to investigate Facebook's action, with belief the company "purposefully messed with people's minds".

"Facebook conducted the psychological experiment with researchers at Cornell University and the University of California, San Francisco, who failed to follow standard ethical protocols for human subject research," EPIC wrote in its complaint.

The study by the Facebook team tested emotions of users for a week in January 2012.

The researchers wanted to test whether "emotional contagion" occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the news feed.

Facebook tweaked the posts users were receiving on their feeds. Some received posts with positive sentiments, while others received posts with more negative emotions. Facebook wanted to see if this altered people's Facebook behaviour and emotions.

The findings of experiment were published in a paper in the March issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"At the time of the experiment, Facebook did not state in the Data Use Policy that user data would be used for research purposes," EPIC continued.

"Facebook also failed to inform users that their personal information would be shared with researchers. Moreover, at the time of the experiment, Facebook was subject to a consent order with the Federal Trade Commission which required the company to obtain users' affirmative express consent prior to sharing user information with third parties.

"Facebook's conduct is both a deceptive trade practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act and a violation of the Commission’s 2012 Consent Order."

EPIC has urged the FTC to "impose sanctions, including a requirement that Facebook make public the algorithm by which it generates the news feed for all users".

Similar concerns have also now been expressed by the scientific journal that initially published the findings of the Facebook study. It said it typically publishes experiments that have allowed subjects to opt out of research.

"Based on the information provided by the authors, PNAS editors deemed it appropriate to publish the paper," said a statement by editor-in-chief Inder Verma.

"It is nevertheless a matter of concern that the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out."

Facebook is currently under a 20-year settlement agreement with the FTC. In November 2011, the FTC settled charges that dated back to 2009, when the company made changes to its privacy settings where certain information was previously set to private was made public without informing users about the changes, or getting their approval in advance.

The FTC proposed Facebook to take several steps to make sure it lives up to its promises in the future, including giving users advance warning to any chances, as well as obtain consumers' consent before their information is shared before their privacy settings are overridden.

Topics: Privacy, Social Enterprise

About

Since completing a degree in journalism, Aimee has had her fair share of covering various topics, including business, retail, manufacturing, and travel. She continues to expand her repertoire as a tech journalist with ZDNet.

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8 comments
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  • I've been expecting a class action lawsuit

    given that FB had apparently not even put a general purpose clause in its Terms of Service before the experiment was done. Even that shouldn't be enough to qualify as "informed consent" - how can you consent if you don't know something is being done? Do you consent to anything and everything FB decides in its fertile imagination to do with your data? If so, tell users and see what they do.
    I2k4
    • One can't claim 3rd parties as 2nd parties to avoid liability

      Facebook had a duty to inform. Changing the terms of service after the experiment was an admission they knew they had a problem with informed consent.
      Auna
      • Additionally,

        The change in terms of service does not cover what they actually did. The terms of service states that they may use data for research purposes. This covers analysis of data collected but not experimentation on users by manipulating the news feeds in order to collect the data. Its one thing to say "We reserve the right to record your interactions with our service to analyze the results". Its another to say "We reserve the right to experiment on you and record your interactions with our service to analyze the results".
        techadmin.cc@...
  • I've been expecting a class action lawsuit

    given that FB had apparently not even put a general purpose clause in its Terms of Service before the experiment was done. Even that shouldn't be enough to qualify as "informed consent" - how can you consent if you don't know something is being done? Do you consent to anything and everything FB decides in its fertile imagination to do with your data? If so, tell users and see what they do.
    I2k4
  • Shut them down

    404 the company and bury the individuals responsible. Call it a felony as it violates laws and crosses state lines.
    ct2193@...
    • What laws?

      some regulations maybe, but I know of no laws.
      jessepollard
  • Violate Zuckerberg's Privacy

    By posting a hidden-camera video of him taking a dump and see how fast HE files a suit. That smart-@ss punk needs to meet some of his FB users face-to-face. In a dark alley. Rich and stupid is a dangerous combination.
    Iman Oldgeek
  • ...and this is why...

    ...I will never have an FB account. Privacy there is a joke, and in the past, the site has also been a vector for malware infection.

    What frustrates me is more and more Net services are moving to FB for various functions. One of the larger ones, ESPN, now requires members to use FB for posting comments on articles or participating in discussions. Other sites I frequent have moved or are planning to migrate some of their operations to FB as well. which require their community members to sign up on FB as well.

    Hopefully other online services will learn of this and they will reconsider their decision to ally with the social network.
    Kyoto Kid