Facebook experiment may have broken UK law

Facebook’s psychological experiment on 700,000 users may have broken British law, says major data regulator.

Facebook's experiment conducted in 2012 has produced a large amount of social media furor. [Reuters]
Facebook's experiment conducted in 2012 has produced a large amount of social media furor. [Reuters]

A British data regulator has been investigating whether Facebook Inc broke data protection laws when it allowed researchers to conduct a psychological experiment on nearly 700,000 users of the social network, the Financial Times reported.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which monitors how personal data is used, is probing the controversial experiment and plans to ask Facebook questions, the newspaper reported on Tuesday.

It is still too early to tell exactly what part of the law Facebook may have infringed, the FT quoted a spokesperson for the data regulator as saying.

Facebook’s psychological experiment conducted in 2012 has provoked a certain amount of social media backlash.

The week-long experiment was intended to find if Facebook could alter the emotional state of its users and prompt them to post either more positive or negative content in the platforms newsfeed.

Representatives for ICO and Facebook did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Facebook claims that users agree to such research when they sign up for their account and click the box under “terms and conditions”.

“Legally, they have the right to research in any way that they want on anything you post on Facebook. That’s what you agreed to when you clicked the user agreement when you signed up for Facebook. I don’t think most people would think that that implied they were up for being researched on in a psychological experiment that they were not informed of,” said Sophie Weiner, a writer at AnimalNewYork.com, a science, business, and culture newsite, who investigated the study after it was published.

Uninformed consent

The social media giant has not only upset users of the platform but has also angered members of the scientific community as well.

“There’s a lot of reasons why social science work gets reviewed. The Facebook study did none of that: they didn’t subject it to any review; they didn’t give you informed consent; they didn’t give you a choice. They put you in an experiment without your permission,” explained Dr Art Caplan, the director of the division of medical ethics at NYU-Langone Medical Center in New York.

Earlier in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists (PNAS), Facebook published the findings of the psychological study in which they manipulated user newsfeeds to see positive or negative posts from their friends and then monitored the subsequent posts to determine the impact.

The study was conducted without the users’ knowledge of the manipulation.

Internet privacy concerns shot up the agenda last year when former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of mass US surveillance programs involving European citizens and some heads of state.
Last week, Google Inc said it has begun removing some search results to comply with a European Union ruling upholding citizens’ right to have objectionable personal information about them hidden in search engines.

Source : News Agencies

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