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Summary:

Facebook can forget about the outcry of its “emotions” study fading away. An influential science journal published a note of concern, while a privacy group is calling for legal action.

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photo: Gigaom Illustration

The furor over Facebook’s controversial “emotions” study shows no sign of abating, as the journal that published the study issued an “Editorial Expression of Concern” on Thursday while privacy watchdog Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) called on the FTC to take action.

The outcry relates to an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that described how Facebook manipulated the emotions of nearly 700,000 users by exposing them to disproportionate amounts of positive or negative news in order to measure their response.

On Thursday, PNAS wrote in a short note that Facebook, as a private company, was not obliged to conform with the “Common Rule” for research on human subjects but suggested that the social network still engaged in questionable behavior:

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.

EPIC, meanwhile, filed a complaint with the FTC over Facebook’s failure to inform users that they were in a research study, and for violating the terms of a 2012 consent order that requires Facebook to obtain clear consent when it changes the rules of who can see users’ personal data.

The FTC has so far not announced any action against Facebook, but is likely investigating the situation. If Facebook indeed violated the 2012 order, which led the agency to impose a 20-year privacy audit, the company may have to pay a fine. A more interesting possibility, however, is that the FTC could grant EPIC’s demand to force Facebook to make public the algorithms it uses to control its NewsFeed.

It’s not clear that Facebook ran afoul of any legal rules and, in any case, one researcher claims the effect of the experiment on the emotions of the subjects was negligible. Still, a lot of people believe that Facebook made an ethical lapse, while the incident is also taking on symbolic potency for the control that companies have over our personal lives.

Here’s the PNAS “Expression of Concern” and a copy of EPIC’s complaint. (My colleague Mathew Ingram also has helpful summary of reaction to the controversy so far)

PNAS Editorial Note

EPIC v Facebook

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Thursday, August 28, 2014
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4 Comments

  1. Was somebody going to get a thesis out of this? Questionable ethics here.
    Leslie

  2. keep fighting… Big brother control your emotion with fb feed.

  3. I have to laugh at the way FB is now pretending they don’t understand why everyone thinks this was unethical. Surely this concern was brought up before the study was conducted, and someone decided “aw, ethics shmethics, go for it.”

  4. Are you kidding, their whole business plan is that you are in a research study. You are the product, not the client. They will always look for ways to make the product more valuable.