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US privacy group takes Facebook mood experiment complaint to the FTC

04 Jul 2014
Facebook's mood experiment has been criticised

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to consider Facebook's recent ‘mood experiment'.

EPIC is protesting the psychological experiment and has advised the FTC that the study could have violated a privacy agreement made by the firm. EPIC said that the study and the company, "purposefully messed with people's minds".

"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," it says in its complaint

"Moreover, at the time of the experiment, Facebook was subject to a consent order with the FTC, which required the company to obtain users' affirmative express consent prior to sharing user information with third parties."

EPIC's complaint led to that consent order, as it – along with other groups – took the social network to task on privacy around five years ago. The privacy agreement set then bound Facebook for two decades.

EPIC would like the FTC to force Facebook into revealing the algorithm used in an area of the site. "The Commission should impose sanctions, including a requirement that Facebook make public the algorithm by which it generates the News Feed for all users," it said.

We have asked Facebook to comment on the complaint, but it has not by the time of publication. It has apologised, however, and been presented with a wall of opposition to its secretive experiment.

A petition set up to protest the tests has been launched and is gathering signatures. Meanwhile the firm's COO Sheryl Sandberg has apologised for the experiments the social site ran on people's emotions.

The petition has been launched by Fight for the Future campaign group, and it expresses a lot of dissatisfaction with the underhand experiment. It asks that people put their name to a demand that Facebook ceases its experiments and makes a commitment to transparency and openness.

There are three demands which are all designed to shine a light on the experiments. "Facebook's experiment is unethical and their privacy policy and data use policy do not meet the requirement of informed consent," says the group.

"We demand that Facebook: inform the people affected by this experiment that they were participants; refrain from conducting any similar studies and make it clear in the terms of service, data use policy, and privacy policy that these types of experiments are prohibited without informed consent; disclose if any other similar experiments have been or are being conducted."

This is the second Facebook petition from Fight for the Future in as many weeks, and last week's – a response to a change in advertising practices – gathered around 130,000 signatures.

We have asked Facebook for its response and we have asked Fight for the Future whether it has numbers on the most recent petition.

As the fallout from the experiment continues, Sandberg said she was sorry for any distress it may have caused, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated,” she said.  “And for that communication we apologise. We never meant to upset you.”

Currently, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is investigating Facebook to see whether its controversial experiment to manipulate users’ News Feeds broke the law.

Facebook admitted that it carried out a short-lived experiment to deliberately try to influence people’s moods and behaviour on the site, by showing certain users more positive or negative headlines and posts.

There was uproar when this came to light, but Facebook claimed it was able to do this as users agreed to such activities in the terms and conditions when they signed up.

But it has been claimed that Facebook updated its terms after the experiment ran. In light of these issues the ICO has confirmed to V3 that it is preparing to talk to Facebook about the incident. 

“We're aware of this issue, and will be speaking to Facebook, as well as liaising with the Irish data protection authority, to learn more about the circumstances,” the ICO said.

V3 contacted Facebook for any statement in response to the ICO investigation, but had received no reply at the time of publication.

The experiment in question took place in 2012 on some 700,000 Facebook users to see if moods could be manipulated by presenting specific information to users.

Facebook's data scientist Adam Kramer has since admitted that he could see why the experiment may have unnerved some. "I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety," he said.

The incident heaps more pressure on Facebook with issues of privacy and data gathering, as it is embroiled in several legal cases, including a high-profile case regarding NSA surveillance that has been taken to the European Court of Justice.

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Dan Worth

Dan Worth is the news editor for V3 having first joined the site as a reporter in November 2009. He specialises in a raft of areas including fixed and mobile telecoms, data protection, social media and government IT. Before joining V3 Dan covered communications technology, data handling and resilience in the emergency services sector on the BAPCO Journal

View Dan's Google+ profile

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