Facebook is again under attack, this time by U.S Senator Mark R. Warner, who is asking the Federal Trade
Commission to inspect the social network’s use of big data. The cause of this is a controversial experiment
conducted by Facebook on a share of its users. In statement on
this topic, the Virginia senator said: “I think the industry could benefit from a conversation about what
are the appropriate rules of the road going forward.”
The study in question was performed in 2012, when Facebook manipulated the content of some 689,003 users
in English-speaking countries to see how much it would affect their mood. This again was analyzed through
their own status updates, using language analysis systems. Warner suggests that the experiment stands in
conflict with the consent agreement they drew up with the FTC in 2011 and section 5 of the FTC act,
concerning “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”
As we have already reported, despite the impact of this experiment and the implicit power
of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook is appraised by academic
parties for the amount of research that they open up to the public; this study was published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But Electronic Privacy Information Center doesn’t share their enthusiasm; they recently filed a complaint to the FTC claiming that Facebook is guilty of violating its task to protect user privacy and of using deceptive trade practice.
In Warner’s letter to the FDC he raises the question whether in times of immense big data collection and
analysis through social networks, it would be useful to establish a framework, possibly overseen by the FTC,
to regulate such practices. While Facebook was under no requirement to have the moral impact of its study
evaluated by any independent agency, Warner wonders if this might become necessary in the future. He also
makes the suggestion that users should be provided with more agency over the use of their data for such
purposes, a question that has remained unanswered in reports on the topic. Same goes for informing users
about the public presentation of the data collected through this experiment. Yet Warner does not necessarily
support an increase of federal regulation, but favors a self-regulation of the industry.
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“It’s clear that people were upset by this study and we take responsibility for it. We want to do better in the future and are improving our process based on this feedback,” a Facebook spokesman said in response. “The study was done with appropriate protections for people’s information and we are happy to answer any questions regulators
So far, the FTC has not commented on the content of Warner’s letter. In response to the criticism on this study,
a Facebook researcher has defended the company’s conduct by explaining that its main goal was to reflect on a public concern about the impact of negative status updates on users’ emotions and their use of the social
network. In two parallel experiments the algorithm either reduced or increased the amount of negative
emotional content on users; news feeds, in a procedure that “was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy,
to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this
research.” according to the paper’s authors.
(Image credit: Flickr)
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