U.S., European Lawmakers Eye Facebook Study

    Jul 21, 2014

    Facebook is once again in the hot seat with its users, privacy groups, and some lawmakers in both the United States and Europe. The uproar this time is over the recent disclosure of a blind research study the social network site conducted one week in January 2012 – unbeknownst to its subscribers. 

    Essentially, Facebook manipulated the content of news feeds being sent to 700,000 users to see if negative emotions were contagious. The results, which showed that the “the actual impact on people in the experiment was the minimal amount to statistically detect it,” were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

    Several European data protection agencies – particularly in the United Kingdom – are looking into the matter, and at least one U.S. privacy group says it plans to complain to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In addition, Senator Mark Warner (R-Va.) has asked the FTC to “explore the potential ramifications” of the study. 

    “As the collection and analysis of ‘big data’ continues to increase, and as it assumes a larger role in the business plans of Internet-based companies, it is appropriate that we consider questions about what, if any, oversight might be appropriate, and whether best practices should be developed and implemented by the industry or by the FTC,” wrote Warner in a letter to the FTC.

    At least in the United States, it’s generally accepted that Facebook may not have done anything illegal, but many argue it was unethical. Warner noted that while companies like Facebook may have to perform research on a broad scale to improve their products, the constantly evolving nature of social media, big data, and the Internet cause many of these issues to “fall into unchartered territory.” 

    Warner concluded his letter to the FTC with the following questions:

    • Does the FTC have a role to play in improving transparency, accountability, and consumer trust in industry’s use of big data?
    • Are there better ways to educate consumers, or otherwise improve transparency, about the practices authorized by their use of social media platforms?
    • Does the FTC make any distinction between passively observing user data versus actively manipulating it?
    • Does the FTC or another federal entity require any additional regulatory authority or technology to monitor this type of data mining?

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