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Privacy Group Wants FTC to Investigate Facebook’s Social Experiment

9 Jul, 2014 By: Doug McPherson

WASHINGTON – The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy watchdog group, has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Facebook’s manipulation of the news feeds of nearly 700,000 Facebook users.

For about a week in January 2012, Facebook, with researchers from Cornell University and the University of California, altered the news feeds of 689,003 users to study how emotional content affected user behavior on social media. The study found that people exposed to positive emotional content were more apt to post positive posts and people exposed to more negativity were more apt to be more negative in their own posts.

EPIC alleges in a formal complaint filed last week that Facebook’s actions “purposefully messed with people’s minds,” constituted deceptive trading and violated an FTC privacy consent order. EPIC is seeking sanctions, including forcing Facebook to make its news feed algorithm public.

The complaint reads: “At the time of the experiment, Facebook did not state in the Data Use Policy that user data would be used for research purposes. 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 is operating under a FTC consent decree over privacy issues that began in August 2012, after the research was conducted, but Facebook agreed to a settlement in November 2011. EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg told MediaPost News that a violation of the terms would show “bad faith” on Facebook’s part, even if it occurred before the deal was finalized.

Facebook’s response to EPIC’s complaint 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. Companies that want to improve their services use the information their customers provide, whether their privacy policy uses the word ‘research’ or not.”

Analysts and commentators have questioned the ethics of running psychological tests on people without first obtaining their informed consent.

EPIC adds in complaint that users “could not reasonably have guessed that use of their Facebook account might subject them to behavioral testing.” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, admitted the company “poorly communicated” information about the study but didn’t apologize.

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