EPIC Fail: Facebook Study Provokes Formal Complaint from Privacy Group

EPIC files complaint with FTC about psychological Facebook study controvesy
On Thursday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), requesting the company be investigated. The thirteen page complaint (PDF) states Facebook “purposefully messed with people’s minds” in order to conduct psychological research, referring to a study which was recently published in cooperation with Cornell researchers. Over the course of a week in 2012, approximately 700,000 users’ newsfeeds were purposefully manipulated so users saw either more sad news or more happy news. The researchers reported a successful study, claiming to have proven “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.”

The study has since come under considerable criticism for its lack of upfront transparency, and potentially damaging effects. Attempting to minimize the negative perception of the study, Adam Kramer, one of Facebook’s researchers, claims the effects were actually quite small. Others have pointed out, however, the actual impact of the study is irrelevant, as final results could not have been known prior to its completion. The complaint alleges that “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 argues the company, currently required to protect user privacy by a 20 year agreement with the FTC, conducted the study illegally and unethically.

EPIC is not the only group attempting to take action against Facebook. Center for Digital Democracy director Jeffrey Chester claims he, too, has contacted regulators, and his group is also considering filling an official complaint. Currently, they plan to speak to the FTC during the next week about what they perceive to be a violation of law.

Facebook responded adamantly to the complaints against the study, releasing a statement which reads, “When someone signs up for Facebook, we’ve always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer. To suggest we conducted any corporate research without permission is complete fiction.” It goes on to state that “companies that want to improve their services use the information their customers provide, whether their privacy policy uses the word ‘research’ or not.” On Wednesday, however, COO Sheryl Sandberg made an apology, defending the study’s purpose. but calling it “poorly communicated.”

Social media users expressed their outrage and suspicion over the whole affair. Facebook is certainly not a new name in controversy concerning internet security and privacy. The more its users, and those of similar websites, learn, the more people have a tendency to worry. The controversy has also raised some concern for whether a notice or disclaimer in the documents detailing the terms of use is sufficient or ethical, given that so many users never read them. Whether or not the FTC will find Facebook in the wrong is yet to be seen.

(Photo courtesy of Eston Bond)

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3 Responses to EPIC Fail: Facebook Study Provokes Formal Complaint from Privacy Group

  1. Victoria says:

    Using data for “research” is one thing. Secretly manipulating a user’s experience within their personal account is something else. The first might be protected by the privacy policy, but the second is clearly a breach of trust. What if one of those unwitting participants got depressed to the point of suicide? Shame on Facebook; account holders are not yours to experiment on. This is just one more reason why I will never sign up.

  2. Edward says:

    Spot on. Facebook needs to pay for their evil actions.

    If a university engaged in such behavior with human experimentation, they would lose funding. Professors’ careers would be ruined. Chairs of departments would be let go. Presidents and Provosts left with permanent stains on their ability to oversee their faculty.

    Facebook’s leadership needs to be taken to task for this arrogant behavior.

  3. J.K. says:

    What’s interesting is that, if anyone who viewed the negative targeted material committed suicide around that time, Facebook could be liable for negligence/homicide. That is, if a person who learned to trust Facebook suddenly was bombarded by negativity by that trusted source, while his/her guard was down… it’s like, for example, a trusted therapist suddenly attacking/criticizing/bullying you without end. Yes, that could push someone, a rare vulnerable trusting person, over the edge. Then Hollywood would make the movie, “Murder by Website”– and Facebook would be history.

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