Privacy Group Files FTC Complaint Over Facebook's Psych Research

Even an official apology from Sheryl Sandberg wasn’t enough to calm critics of Facebook’s now infamous psychological research study -- the one that secretly manipulated the News Feeds of nearly 700,000 users to see how it would affect them emotionally.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, on Thursday, which claims that the social giant broke the law when it conducted the study without users’ consent back in 2012.
“The company purposefully messed with people's minds,” according to the complaint. “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.”
In response, Facebook said in a statement issued on Thursday: “When someone signs up for Facebook, we've always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer.”
Facebook has always maintained that its Data Use Policy permitted it to legally conduct the “emotion manipulation” study. As Forbes was first to report, the policy did not allow for such research back in 2012 -- when the study actually took place.
Yet, “to suggest we conducted any corporate research without permission is complete fiction," Facebook insists. “Companies that want to improve their services use the information their customers provide, whether their privacy policy uses the word 'research' or not."
Facebook is already set to face questioning from the UK’s data watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) over its psychological experiment, the findings of which were only recently published.
Facebook’s original reaction to critics and media inquiries regarding the research was rather dismissive, as it maintained that none of the data used in the study was associated with individual user accounts. It soon became clear, however, that a more thoughtful response would be necessary to quell concerned users, members of the media, academia, and legal experts.
As a broadly circulated blog post from University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann noted, “This study is a scandal because it brought Facebook’s troubling practices into a realm -- academia -- where we still have standards of treating people with dignity and serving the common good.”
In response, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, told members of the media on Wednesday: “This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products,” but Facebook’s intentions were “poorly communicated … For that communication, we apologize.”
In a blog post, one of the study's authors, Facebook's Adam Kramer, had already conceded that “the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety,” adding, “We have come a long way since then.”

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