Tuesday 21 October 2014

Data chiefs tackle Facebook over its mind testing study

Ed Carty and Aine Fox

Published 03/07/2014 | 02:30

Privacy chiefs have confirmed they have contacted Facebook's Dublin headquarters to ask for a comprehensive explanation of the secret test
Privacy chiefs have confirmed they have contacted Facebook's Dublin headquarters to ask for a comprehensive explanation of the secret test

THE Data Protection Commissioner is awaiting an explanation from Facebook over an alleged psychological experiment which recorded users' moods while news feeds on the social network were manipulated.

Privacy chiefs have confirmed they have contacted the web giant's Dublin headquarters to ask for a comprehensive explanation of the secret test.

The question of user consent is understood to be a major issue for the Irish watchdog.

And in the UK the Information Commissioner's Office is also said to be looking into how the social network and two US universities altered news feeds of almost 700,000 users and monitored their reactions.

The issue has also been raised in the Westminster parliament.

The study was said to be designed to measure the impact of "emotional contagion".

A spokeswoman for Ireland's DPC said: "I can confirm that this office has been in contact with Facebook in relation to the privacy issues, including consent, of this research. We are awaiting a comprehensive response on issues raised."

The UK inquiry will look at what data protection laws, if any, may have been broken.

The experiment, over a week in January 2012 in collaboration with Cornell University and the University of California, sparked a social media furore.

Negative

It is understood the aim of the government-sponsored study was to see if positive or negative words in messages would lead to positive or negative content in status updates.

A spokesman for the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said: "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."

Kevin Macnish, a teaching fellow in applied ethics at the University of Leeds, was asked by Liberal Democrat MP David Heath at a British House of Commons select committee hearing to comment on the concept of informed consent.

He said: "The case with Facebook that has been in the press recently over their use of the Facebook wall to manipulate emotions, or at least that is the way it has been presented, based on one word of research in their 9,400-word terms and conditions, seems not to be informed consent by anybody's stretch of the imagination."

Richard Allan, of Facebook, said the company will answer any questions regulators have. "It's clear that people were upset by this study and we take responsibility for it.

"The study was done with appropriate protections for people's information and we are happy to answer questions."

Facebook also said there is no "unnecessary" collection of individuals' data during its research and that any suggestion that it carried out research without users' knowledge and permission is complete fiction.

Irish Independent

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