Facebook hit with FTC complaint on social network experiment


In a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission, a privacy advocacy group alleges Facebook's 2012 study on emotions broke the law and infringed on the rights of its users,.

News of Facebook's week-long study in 2012 was met with outrage, once publication of the research revealed the social networking giant manipulated the content roughly 700,000 of its users viewed in an effort to gauge emotional responses.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) asserts in its complaint that Facebook's Data Use Policy contained no language empowering the social networking company to purpose user data/

"Facebook also failed to inform users that their personal information would be shared with researchers," states the complaint. "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."

EPIC cites language in the 2011 version of Facebook's ever-changing Data Use Policy, referencing what appears to be an archived version of the policy. The group's complaint states the 2011 version of the Data Use Policy only allowed Facebook to process user data for security, location-based services, ad metrics and making suggestion for finding friends.

A Facebook spokesperson addressed EPIC's grievance, focusing on the intent behind Facebook's Data Use Policy instead of the terminology.

"When someone signs up for Facebook, we've always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer," said the spokesperson. "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."

The journal in which Facebook's 2012 study was published, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published an editorial letter about use of the data. Inder M. Verma, PNAS' editor-in-chief, states in her letter Facebook wasn't subject to the same research standards as a public institution, as Facebook is a private company and conducted the research internally.

"Based on the information provided by the authors, PNAS editors deemed it appropriate to publish the paper," stated Verma. "It is nevertheless a matter of concern that the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out."

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