Commentary

Law Profs Say Facebook, OkCupid's Secret Experiments Violate Maryland Law

Back in July, University of Maryland law professors James Grimmelmann and Leslie Meltzer Henry argued to the Federal Trade Commission that Facebook might have deceived its users by running secret psychological experiments on 700,000 of them.

“The failure to disclose research is an omission that a reasonable consumer would consider material in deciding whether or not to use a service,” they wrote in a letter urging the FTC to protect consumers from future research projects.

Now, after some additional digging,  Grimmelmann and Henry are leveling a new charge: They say that Facebook -- as well as OkCupid, which also conducted secret experiments on its users -- violated a Maryland state law.

“The lapses of ethical judgment shown by Facebook and OkCupid are scandalous,” Grimmelmann writes in a new piece on Medium. “But the ethics are only half of the story. What Facebook and OkCupid did wasn’t just unethical. It was illegal.” 

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The posts stem from news this summer that Facebook tinkered with news feeds of nearly 700,000 people in order to test whether their moods would be influenced by friends' posts. For the study, Facebook manipulated users' news feeds to deliberately filter out some positive or negative posts.

Researchers then examined users' reactions and concluded that mood was “contagious,” with users' responses matching the tone of the posts they saw: People shown more negative posts themselves began posting more negative material, while those shown more positive comments themselves posted in a more positive tone.

Several weeks after news broke about Facebook's experiment, dating site  OkCupid acknowledged today that it tested its matchmaking algorithm by deliberately lying to users about the compatibility of potential dates.

These tests violated a 2002 law requiring researchers to obtain people's informed consent before running tests on them, Grimmelmann and Henry argue.

“Facebook and OkCupid are in blatant violation of Maryland law,” they said yesterday in a 10-page letter to Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler.

They say the measure, House Bill 917, imposes several mandates on researchers, including that they describe their experiments to subjects, disclose the risks, and allow people to opt out. “Facebook and OkCupid did almost none of this,” they write. “No one told users they were part of a research study -- and Facebook has not told them to this day.”

Grimmelmann and Henry are urging Gansler to seek a court order prohibiting Facebook and OkCupid from conducting any other experiments on their users, unless the companies first obtain people's informed consent.

2 comments about "Law Profs Say Facebook, OkCupid's Secret Experiments Violate Maryland Law".
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  1. David Carlick from Carlick, September 25, 2014 at 10:06 a.m.

    And yet, every visit to an e-commerce site, every ad served online, every publisher page, all are part of campaigns constantly testing and researching what will motivate consumers to click or buy or forward. It is all one colossal and dynamic research project. All this legal project will do is shut down the publication and sharing of learnings.

  2. Gwyneth Llewelyn from Beta Technologies, September 25, 2014 at 3:08 p.m.

    The sad story is that the results of such tests made at a massive scale would actually be quite interesting and important to science. All Facebook and OK Cupid would have required is a simply dialog box saying that they would be performing an experiment and require people's consent to do so. I would not mind, and I'm sure they would easily get 700,000 willing test subjects out of their billion or so users.

    Such a pity that these companies, with such a wealth of information at their fingertips, never remember to be ethical.

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