Facebook experiment: Now privacy group makes complaint to US regulator

Lynsey Barber
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Facebook is still under pressure over experiment (Source: Getty)

A US privacy group has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission regarding a controversial psychological experiment performed on Facebook users without consent.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the business regulator to investigate Facebook, claiming “the company purposefully messed with people’s minds” and the experiment “violates a privacy consent order and is a deceptive trade practice”.

The group has requested the FTC sanctions Facebook to make public the algorithm used to generate news feeds.

The FTC has not yet responded to the complaint, lodged just before the Independence Day holiday in the US.

Facebook manipulated the news feed of more than half a million users in 2012 to see how changes prompted a positive or negative response.

The experiment, titled “Experimental evidence of mass-scale emotional contagion through social networks” was only revealed when the results were published in an academic journal last month.

The journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), published an editorial expression of concern, noting: “Questions have been raised about the principles of informed consent and opportunity to opt out in connection with the research in this paper.”

Editor-in-chief Inder M.Verma said obtaining consent and allowing participants to opt out is “common rule”- a federal regulation protecting human subjects- which PNAS adheres to, but “as a private company Facebook was under no obligation to conform to the provisions of the Common Rule when it collected the data used by the authors, and the Common Rule does not preclude their use of the data”.

However, Verma concluded it was a matter of concern that Facebook’s collection of data may not have been in line with the principles of informed consent and opting out.

Facebook also faces an investigation into the experiment from UK regulators and has been unable to quell outrage over the research despite Facebook chief Sheryl Sandeberg apologising for poor communication in the matter.

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